The Imp of the Perverse, not Patrick, may be the patron saint of this particular Irishman. Read the fictions of 2013 IMPAC winner Kevin Barry — he snagged the 100,000-euro prize with the bloody and lyrical novel City of Bohane — and you’ll discern the presence of a little demon stalking his people, a green-eyed creeping death with a rain-wracked ginger topknot. These souls find doing the right thing, whether it be moral or rational, quite the difficulty. The barriers are often karmically insurmountable. And as in his new book, the award-winning collection Dark Lies the Island, the affliction makes for consistently glorious, and often hilarious, reading.
Burn enough hours with the mind behind it all and you’ll detect certain immutable qualities, including a genuine affability, a grindstone work ethic, and immense empathy. The lattermost, a good thing for any writer, seems to be what also makes his readings among the most entertaining and virtuosic I’ve ever witnessed. The confidence and timing of a seasoned actor or comedian come naturally — the characters are made flesh — and as a story unspools in Barry’s easy Irish timbre, it reeks of the real, of the truth, no matter how fantastical the tale.
Barry recently visited Oregon for Portland’s Wordstock festival, and as is required by law here, I invited him out for some cycling (“I’ll ride 80k a day”) and some pints at the legendary Horse Brass Pub (“You Americans — look, if it’s over 5 percent, it isn’t beer; it’s fucking tawny port wine”). We inevitably found a good session beer to his liking and then talked at length about his work, the subconscious, the ’burbs, failure, the supernatural, Southern writers, comic fiction, and Ireland’s formidable literary legacy.
The Millions: Some biography, please.
Kevin Barry: I’m from Limerick city, on the west coast of Ireland. I’m 44. I’ve published three books, and I cycle my bike a lot in County Sligo. I live in an old police station there, in a swamp, essentially. And if I don’t write in the day, I don’t feel good for anything much.
TM: Did you grow up in Limerick?
KB: Pretty much in Limerick city until my late teens, in the suburbs. And when you grow up in an Irish suburb in the seventies, you may as well be in a suburb of Toronto or Phoenix. Most of the cultural feeds are precisely the same, except there’s also something slightly other about the language. Irish writers maybe have a slight edge because of the way we fucking mangle the English language. We have no rules for it. The way we deliver our stories is changing all the time, but I don’t think there’s any fear for the story. Human beings need stories as much as they need beer and trousers and hats and food and shelter.
TM: You hear early humans likely discovered fire a million years ago. We’ve been telling stories, in some form, around campfires for a million years.
KB: And it won’t stop. In terms of Irish writing, we must never underestimate the effect of 300 days of rain a year. We’re indoors a lot of the time, and we need to make shit up. We’d go nuts if we didn’t. But, yeah, I’m a kid of the suburbs and still have strange romantic notions about suburban life and that feeling on summer evenings. It always puzzles me that there isn’t more suburban art and literature.
TM: Maybe people are trying to escape the suburbs psychologically.
KB: Yeah, it’s like they’re so bland they can’t be mythic.
TM: Cheever made them mythic. It’s a liminal place, the hybrid city-country.
KB: There’s some French word that I can’t think of at the moment, where city bleeds into countryside, that edge of town. It’s a kind of nowhere land, with odd tensions from either side pulling. Nothing as eerie as walking around a suburb at 4 a.m. on a summer-night morning with nobody around and just a little bit of wind in the trees and leaves. And falling in love or out of love with some girl, and you’re 17. Those moments stay with you, in the sodium light.
TM: Does that shape your work?
KB: I remember talking once to a bunch of American students. And they were stunned and horrified to learn that Ireland has suburbs. Even though so many of us in Ireland grow up in the suburbs, they almost never show up in Irish literature. Because it doesn’t suit the mythos, which is either the Ulysses of the big city or the John McGahern small towns or the farm and the bleak austerity of the farmland. But Irish suburban life has almost never been done. The working-class cities, Limerick and Cork—that language has never appeared in Irish literature. I tried to bring some of it into City of Bohane. I hate the word resource applied in any way to literature or art, but it is a resource. It’s a very strange, weird, mangled, beautiful, tender, lovely take on English.
TM: You’re obviously besotted by the language, and you work its angles and curves to great effect. I picture the Oxford English Dictionary sinking into a Gaelic bog. But you don’t sacrifice clarity, even in your novel, which is a sustained, successful voice experiment. A high-low style seems to come easily to you, like a tune on the air.
KB: Thinking specifically in terms of the novel, I’ve always been drawn to work that tries to blend the high and the low. Saul Bellow in the fifties, with Augie March, trying to do Chicago street talk but the literary fucking high style as well, and really going for it. Martin Amis in the eighties in London. When I came to write City of Bohane, I had twin ambitions for it. I wanted it to be a grand, visceral entertainment, a real pulpy fucking page-turner, but also a serious language experiment. It was fun to write, and increasingly it seems to me that I should be having fun at the desk. On the very simple equation that if I’m having a good time at my end, the dear, beloved reader is having a good damn time at the far end. A lot of writers say that they don’t think about the reader at all. I’m a complete fucking whore for the reader. If someone picks up my book, they’re really doing me a fucking turn, and I want to give them a good time on many different levels. So I try to make every page and sentence pop. And that causes weird technical difficulties as a writer. It makes your work very intense as a reading experience. With City of Bohane, I sometimes think to tell the story right it should’ve been a much longer book, but the language was too intense. I think 280 pages is fine, because it’s fucking… It’s a wallop in the face.
TM: Some people can’t take it. Some of us eat it up, the sustained performance on the page. And it’s a first-person narrator. But there can be fatigue.
KB: People either tend to really love it and be evangelical of its cause or go, “Fuck all, this is not for me.” Which is fine. I would always take strong reactions over mild ones. It’s a book you have to read with the ears. You have to listen to it. And you have to do a bit of work at the start, and that’s kind of a difficult area now in novels. I think previously, as readers, we were prepared to give a novel a bit of time. You have a 900-page Russian door-stopper from the 19th century, and you give it a hundred pages, and it’d be fucking torture turning those pages. They’re like lead, you know? But then that magical thing happens where suddenly you’re trapped in the world. You’ve earned it.
TM: It’s the same with Shakespeare. Suddenly you’re in and it flows.
KB: I suspect now the reader won’t give you that much time anymore. It makes it a good time for the short story. I think, increasingly, people give as much time to a book as they will to an art-house movie or an indie film. I have this conversation all the time with my editor in London, and he says, “No, man, literature should be the alternative to all that white noise. It should be a quiet, immersive space where we go to get away from all that stuff.”
TM: A deeper escapism and amusement.
KB: Yeah, and maybe he’s right. Until recently, I hadn’t read the Booker Prize–winning Hilary Mantel novels, the Henry the Eighth stuff, you know? She has what I call “thumb.” You just want to turn the pages and keep going with it.
TM: In your work there seems to be the influence of writers from the American South. Barry Hannah and Charles Portis come to mind. A lot of Southern and Irish writers strike me as Hearers of the Music, profoundly taken by language. It seems that they particularly relish the poetry that can be drawn out of prose. Baudelaire wrote, “Always be a poet, even in prose.”
KB: To my shame, I’ve never read Charles Portis. Love Barry Hannah. There is an interesting correlation between Irish and Southern writers. We face similar difficulties, in terms often of the dialogue. You don’t want to over-egg it. But at the same time, people do fucking talk like that. So you have to be true to that as well. I think Hannah gets a beautiful balance.
TM: The dialects seem to have arisen from remoteness and insularity, fed over centuries by religious communalism. Flannery O’Connor wrote — and I once heard Hannah echo this — that the South is “Christ-haunted.” Is it the same for Ireland, with the huge Catholic and smaller Protestant presences?
KB: There’s no doubt. I don’t have a religious bone in my body, but there’s Catholic prose and Protestant prose. Flannery O’Connor’s prose is Catholic fucking prose. John Updike’s prose is Protestant fucking prose. And that’s fine. There’s also Jewish prose, which dominated my whole reading staples in my twenties. I wanted to be the next great Jewish writer, which was difficult, as I was a ginger-haired child in Cork, in the south of Ireland. That didn’t work out. Without being too reductive, I would say the Protestant strain is to strip down and to pare back, to reduce. Beckett is a Protestant writer. Joyce is a Catholic writer. Joyce piles it all on to the fucking page. And for a long time in the 20th century, Irish writers had a great difficulty. They had to go one of the two paths. But there was a third way, and the stream in Irish writing I really love is that mischievous, anarchic, and inventive one that goes back to writers like Flann O’Brien, back to the 1700s to Laurence Sterne and Dean Swift. It’s a kind of crazy, funny, nasty strain.
TM: Tristram Shandy.
KB: Yes. I like my literature to be funny, the comic mode, and I think most of my favorite writers at some level are comic writers. Someone like Saul Bellow. Herzog is a novel about a nervous breakdown, a crack-up, and it’s fucking hilarious. Philip Roth writes terrifying novels about all sorts of disintegration and horrible, awful masculine emotions that are deathly funny. I think comedy is the most true human mode. It’s how we get through, through…
TM: The tragicomedy?
KB: For sure. My short stories, a lot of them are very dark, but I think almost always at the end they are comedic.
TM: That’s a great insight, of being Irish and that choosing between Joyce and Beckett. Beckett said Joyce was a synthesizer — put everything in, tried to bring it all together — but that he was an analyzer, and he was trying to take out every fucking thing he could. A reaction against Joyce and that high postmodernism.
KB: Absolutely. What I love about Beckett’s stuff, really, is that he plowed the same kind of stony ground for 50 years. And did him no harm. You can still bring new things all the time. In my own instance, I think the novels are going to be very different. The short stories are in lots of ways. I want to let the story dictate the style.
TM: The story is the master.
KB: Rather than the other way around. Don DeLillo once said that when he was writing, all that interested him was the sound. He said something like “I’ll happily change the subject of the sentence for the sake of how it sounds. And I will let the sound dictate the story.” I thought, Fucking heroic, man. And a story is a song, and it’s a tune. It’s a melody, and you follow it along.
TM: Dark Lies the Island is your new collection, your second. The stories are highly atmospheric. Whether you’re mixing despair and humor, delving into evil in disguise, or plying supernatural undercurrents, the particular psychology evoked just infuses the narrative.
KB: I think it’s the most intense prose form. There’s nothing like a fucking good story when you’re in its grip. I love the novel for its looseness, in the way that life is shapeless, but I just love that feeling when you’re in the hands of a really good storyteller and you find yourself sitting up a little straighter and turning down the radio and turning off the computer and chucking the kids out the window and just getting closer to the page. And you’re trapped, line by line. To make it that intense an experience for the reader is fucking difficult. I’m also really interested in the essay. It’s more front-of-the-brain.
TM: And you’re on the line. It’s you. You can’t blame it on a character.
KB: I think fiction is superior. You can’t lie in fiction. Your soul is there, pinned and wriggling on the page. You can lie much easier in nonfiction. Every single sentence in a short story is bearing weight, and for that reason most go wrong on me. Most end up on the floor. I write ten or twelve of the fuckers a year. One or two will get seen by anyone. I have a workroom at home in County Sligo that’s just littered with the corpses and near-corpses of half-dead zombie stories. It’s appalling shit. It’s fucking terrible. But I will always finish them, because I think that’s when you know you’re a pro: when you finish even the bad stuff. Just to get a finished object there.
TM: And to know.
KB: And to know. And I’ll do something else.
TM: Your stories read as deeply felt. Sometimes with the first-person stories, you think, That happened to him.
KB: I do think your best ones come out of your own experience. Everything is feed. Fiction happens in the subconscious, the back of the mind, that place, and I think your life experience has to sit back there for a while before it comes out. I think you have very little control as a writer, often. The decision to write fiction is a kind of a pact you make with your subconscious. You say, “Give me stuff. I’ll be there. I’ll be a pro. I’ll be at my fucking desk. I’ll be waiting for it.”
TM: “I’ll be the vessel.”
KB: Yeah. It’s sitting there. It took me a long time to get there. In my twenties I was writing music reviews, theater reviews, stuff like that, and it was doing fine, making the rent, having a good time out and about… Not getting happy. Knowing there was a part of my brain that I wasn’t using that I wanted to use. But it’s difficult when you’re writing sort of journalism stuff all day to find the time and space to write the fiction. I had to get poor. I bought a 12-foot caravan, a little trailer home, and I sat it on a beach in west Cork, and I spent a summer out there writing the next great Jewish-American novel. And it was a fucking monstrosity. But it taught me it has to be your main thing, the thing you do when you get up in the morning. The time especially for first drafts is when I’m barely awake.
TM: Fresh out of the dream state. John Gardner talked about the “vivid and continuous dream.” And a dream is a wild and fuzzy thing.
KB: Writing fiction and dreaming are very close. I won’t even have a cup of coffee when I get up. I’ll have a cup of weak tea. I don’t want to come up from it too quick. I want to stay in that kind of murky, blobby, kind of dream-shapey world and just— I don’t care about the sentences or the sense or anything. I just want to spew down words onto the page. And just slow accumulation. I’m working on a novel at the moment, and it’s very important to me to do something on it every day, even if it’s 20 minutes, to just try and make a daily connection with it. Because if you miss a day, it can suddenly completely start to go away. Writers have always sought ways to procrastinate. Editing and cutting is the enjoyable part.
TM: Bringing it out of the raw, like Michelangelo’s Captives.
KB: It’s the block of stone. Just cut away at it and see what you can get. There is a corollary to that. I think you can cut too much.
TM: The tendency toward the Carveresque, no pun intended. And a lot of that was Gordon Lish.
KB: Yeah. Or you can polish too much, hone too much, and take the original impulse and life force out of a piece.
TM: In your stories, and especially in your novel, place is always a primary force, a character, often sinister or supernatural.
KB: If I have a single, fundamental belief as a writer — and I suppose it’s quite an esoteric one — it’s that human feeling doesn’t just reside in humans but that it settles into our places, and I think very often fiction is about springing that feeling from places. [The recent New Yorker story] “Ox Mountain Death Song” comes from being out on my bike. I go out around the Sligo hills in the fucking drizzle and rain and wind. But it’s nice because your mind kind of unspews, you know?
TM: Woody Allen’s long, hot shower.
KB: For sure, and I was about three, four years going out cycling in the Ox Mountains, which by American standards aren’t mountains at all; they’re fucking hills, you know? But anytime I went, I got this kind of bleak, dark feeling into my bones. And eventually I said, “I’ll try a new method, a new tactic. I’ll go out and I’ll write the story on site.” I went out and I stayed in a cheap hotel in a little beach town in the shadow of the Ox Mountains and wrote a really rough draft in three days and kind of forgot about it for a few months. I’m often writing two stories at the same time, and one of them is kind of an attempt not to write the other one. There’s always a phantom story underneath. But there’s something John Cheever said in his beautiful introduction to his collected stories: stories remind you very much of the time in your life when you wrote them. Of the place, where you were. What I love about him is he’s deeply fucking weird, you know? Those are really strange, eerie, kind of crazy stories.
TM: He’s doing things that others just weren’t doing. You can say Shirley Jackson, a few others here and there, maybe. But, really, “The Swimmer”?
KB: Amazing story.
TM: Nobody was doing anything like that.
KB: Nobody was doing that stuff. I love to read stories that are coming out now and see what’s happening. But I do love to go back, to read the classic stuff. Someone like V.S. Pritchett, in the 20th century, was a hugely famous story writer. He was in The New Yorker five times a year. In Europe he was the most famous British man of letters. And he had one of those weird things where, after his death, in the late nineties, he just faded from view instantly. But you go back and read him and they’re nuts. And they’re all built on talk, on mad, deranged, demotic, provincial UK kind of talk. As much as you should always keep up with what’s happening and who’s pushing things out at the edge, don’t forget these guys. They put lifetimes’ worth of serious talent into developing the short story and bringing it to where it is. And it’s one of our greatest achievements as human beings, the short-story form. I think it’s really sublime when it’s good. I think what unifies the great story writers is that they stick with it throughout their careers. Sometimes you get the guy who comes out with a brilliant debut collection of stories and just goes on and writes novels. I really hate that shit. Keep writing stories. It’s not an apprentice form for the novel. It’s no accident that the very best writers of stories alive are the people who keep writing them all the way through their careers. Alice Munro, William Trevor, George Saunders.
TM: But we want your novels, too. That expansion. Like in City of Bohane, you’ve got small town, big tapestry. The Bohane River divides the city physically and metaphysically. On its way out to sea it seems to leach and drag the wickedness of the long dead out of the boglands of the countryside to poison the city with “the taint.” It feels directly connected to all the great Irish mythology, especially the Ulster Cycle, Cú Chulainn, the Táin Bó Cúailnge. Epic life and death sunk into the earth but fluid and moving.
KB: Those influences feed in subconsciously. Human feeling bleeding into the place. Limerick city is quite a troubled city, quite a violent place, lots of gang feuds. It’s known as Stab City. It’s always had lots of knife crime. Once, when I was a cub reporter in the late eighties, there was a great, since-passed-away local politician, a guy called Jim Kemmy, and I met him downtown one time. We were standing by the River Shannon, which is Ireland’s biggest, longest river, which enters the sea through Limerick, and there’d been some horrendous fucking gang feud in town with about five dead on either side. And I remember saying to him, “What’s wrong with us?” And he said, “I don’t know, but I think it’s coming in off the river.” And it stuck with me for years and years and years, and the first line of the novel is “Whatever’s wrong with us is coming in off that river.” The taint of place. I try to escape Ireland in the winter often, and I go to Spain, just for some bit of light and blue skies and get out from under the belly of cloud. And I’m a secret bird-watcher. A twitcher. So I went a couple of times, in southern Spain, in Andalucía, to a town called Ronda. There’s a very famous gorge a couple of thousand feet deep. And it’s famous for its choughs, which are crows with red beaks. Amazing fliers. They fly sheer up and down the face of it. So I went there and was looking, and this fucking dark, black, horrendous feeling coming over me, and I’m going, “What the fuck is it?” And getting out of town. Getting out of Ronda on the next bus. Went back couple years later, same thing, down around the gorge. Started doing some research about it and discovered that in the Spanish Civil War 300 prisoners had been made to jump to their deaths, at gunpoint, at the gorge in Ronda. And I’m certain that some of that feeling, that terror, that fucking primeval human horror, has settled into those stones, and I fucking picked some of it up. My brother is a fisherman, loves to fish for trout in Ireland. He talks about a particular lake that he found himself on once in County Clare. And same thing. “Amazing, beautiful summer night. I’m out fishing in my boat out on the lake. Suddenly, ‘Fuck, get outta here.’ Horrible feeling.” Doing some research after: horrible scenes in the Irish famine. Two hundred people starved to death on the shores of this lake.
TM: And you’ve got to have the antennae to pick it up.
KB: I think we all have the antennae at some level.
TM: Some are more sensitive.
KB: Sometimes you’ll shiver and say, “Get outta Dodge.”
TM: Bad mojo. Can you talk about the risks you took with Bohane? I’m curious if there have been any comparisons to Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, if only because of the idiomatic invention.
KB: A Clockwork Orange was a hugely important book to me as a teenager. If you go back to it, it’s very much about Britain in the sixties. It’s a projection on the moment when it’s written. It’s about mods and rockers and Brighton Beach. Burgess wrote it when he was living just outside Brighton, and he couldn’t describe that world directly, but he described it brilliantly by doing it at a future remove. In some sense I think City of Bohane is a projection on Irish cities as they are at the moment, when they have over the last 20 years changed unbelievably, for the first time become multicultural places. Lots of new weird, wonderful energies, lots of new dark, dangerous tensions.
TM: Bohane is like a west-of-Ireland western.
KB: It’s a complete western.
TM: It’s very cinematic, and that quite literally plays into the risky and experimental narratorial conceit, a magical first-person omniscient narrator who’s also a character. But not like Vonnegut’s intrusive god-author; it doesn’t come off like that.
KB: I wanted the reader to feel like they were in some awful, horrendous dive bar in a tremendously deranged Irish city in the middle of the 21st century and there’s some crazy old fucking whisky-drunk nut alongside them whispering this demented tall tale into their ears.
TM: And he knows what people are thinking. You believe him.
KB: Yeah, he’s kind of God out there. One of the technical questions was “How much do I show this guy?” I kept him very, very limited. He shows up once or twice. The I word comes in.
TM: It’s a mystery, but I wouldn’t say it’s soft-pedaled. The voice is so strong. But I haven’t noticed anyone else remarking on it. Then we see you win the IMPAC. Obviously, it’s resonating.
KB: That was very cool, winning a big prize.
TM: Can you talk about setting as character and parallel protagonist?
KB: In Bohane in particular, obviously the city is the main character. I guess what it comes out of is when you’ve lived in a city like Limerick or like Cork, you are aware that there is a world out there, outside the city limits, but really it’s just kind of a rumor. It really doesn’t matter. Where you are is the center of the fucking universe. And Bohane is all-encompassing. They refer to anything outside of Bohane as Big Nothin’. It’s that sense that this is the world and this is all that counts. I think that’s familiar to anybody who’s lived or grown up in small cities. They’re just about big enough to be anonymous in, but also they’ve got this kind of weblike, clammy sense of connection to everything. Coincidences can genuinely happen. When people and professors read Dickens now, they say, “Too many coincidences,” right?
TM: But London was a hell of a lot smaller.
KB: London was about 800,000. People would’ve bumped into each other all the time.
TM: So it’s not necessarily a deus ex machina or overwrought orchestration.
KB: I think he was absolutely on the money.
TM: Is Bohane a bit of a mashup of Limerick, where you’re from, and Sligo, where you live now?
KB: Equal parts Limerick, where I lived until I was 20, and Cork, where I moved to and lived until I was 30. The accent I would hear is quite a Cork singsong, quite a melodious accent. I physically see it as Limerick, which is a dark dock town. And there’s west-of-Ireland weather in there. And great, mad renditions of the English language.
TM: About that. Ireland has given us folks considered the greatest writers in, or innovators within, the English language. People think Joyce and Beckett, deathless giants. Yeats. Flann O’Brien. Seamus Heaney. The great Frank O’Connor. And it’s not a very big place. Is it a burden or a source of effulgent pride?
KB: [Laughs] I would never go to my desk in the morning and say, “I must settle down to do some Irish writing here.” One of my great problems with the whole edifice of Irish literature is that it was sometimes quite a hermetic world. The only influences on Irish literature were things that had happened in Irish literature. As if electric light and television and cinema and rock-and-roll and punk and electro and disco had never been invented. I honestly don’t think in nationalistic terms. If you’re positioned in any way in any tradition, it’s better to have good people behind you than fucking twats.