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Kevin Barry: 'Sometimes writing no longer seems like the thing I do, it seems like the thing I am'

The award-winning Irish writer tells us about his apprenticeship, and his journey from journalist to author.

Kevin Barry

WHAT IS IT like to be a writer? According to Kevin Barry – author of Beatlebone and City of Bohane – it’s challenging and difficult, but when it clicks there’s nothing more rewarding. Barry and a host of Irish writers (including Belinda McKeon, Anne Enright and Joseph O’Connor) have penned essays on their craft for the Irish Writers Centre’s new anthology, Beyond the Centre. Here, Barry writes about his apprenticeship as a writer.

Notes on Desperation – A Writer’s Apprenticeship

Twenty-five years ago I was living at 2, Pery Square, in Limerick city, in the basement of an old Georgian house that was then owned by an aunt of the politician Des O’Malley; the house now operates as a kind of Angela’s Ashes museum.

I was paying a rent of twenty-five Irish punts a week for the dark but rather characterful flat, or rather I was supposed to be paying this amount – in fact, the arrears had somewhat gotten on top of me, a situation that culminated in my being chased through the streets of the city by the auctioneer who managed the building; I was on a mountain bike, he was in a car. He eventually cornered me in Todd’s Bow, behind the eponymous department store, and I raised a placating palm and insisted that I would pay what was due, though in fact I wound up moving to Cork instead.

I had been working as a reporter on the Limerick Post, the weekly freesheet newspaper, busily covering the courts and the council meetings, and also gathering research materials for my novel City of Bohane (2011), though I had no idea I was doing so at the time – in terms of writing fiction, the best research is the research you don’t know you’re doing at the time.

I was also running house music club nights in local discos and organising one-off raves, on account of which the Henry Street branch of the Garda drug squad would sometimes park outside 2, Pery Square, and they would aim significant little smiles at me as I passed in and out of the place, paranoid as a goat.

I was reading Jonathan Raban’s hybrid travelogue/essay books, Don DeLillo novels and early James Ellroy slasher-fests, and I had very firm plans to myself write stories, novels, plays and screenplays – some weekends I would haul my Apple MacIntosh desktop computer home with me from the Limerick Post precisely for this purpose. But as is the
way when you are twenty-two years old, life kept getting in the way.

2

BEYOND THE CENTRE Final

In 1999, I was living in Cork city, freelancing for the Examiner and The Irish Times, but increasingly feeling rather haughty and put out by the fact that I was wasting all my writing energies on journalism. So I chipped in with a pal and we bought a tiny Father Ted-style caravan for four hundred Irish punts and agreed a timeshare on it.

The caravan was hauled out to the far end of the Beara Peninsula and situated in a field beside Ballydonegan beach at Allihies. My timeshare friend used the caravan maybe twice ever, so I more or less had the run of it to myself, and I spent the best part of the summer of 1999 living there – my address was c/o Allihies Post Office – and attempting to write a novel.

The novel focused on a migration that had occurred around the 1880s; workers from the played-out copper mines at Allihies had moved, en masse, to Butte, Montana. I was at this point reading a lot of Cormac McCarthy, and I was determined to have scenes with wolves. I spent months spacing out around the derelict old tin mines in the Caha Mountains, making plans, drafting long, elaborate paragraphs in a notebook held open against the sea breeze, and muttering to myself darkly.

I still have the notebooks containing this novel – they are in a box in the far room here in County Sligo – but I cannot bring myself to look at them. I know that there are something like 70,000 words in there. I’m pretty sure there is occasionally a line of sparky dialogue, or a half-ounce of decent description, but I’m certain that the great bulk
of it is pastiche.

Still, the fact of that 70,000 words achieved in pen and ink was enough to keep me going, and I had vague plans for other novels, and maybe some stories.

Every Thursday morning I would cycle or hitchhike the twenty kilometres into Castletownbere and from an internet kiosk I’d file my column for the Examiner. This was a 500-worder that could be about anything under the sun, and the writing in it was far superior to anything in my novel; I was writing in something like my own voice, and I had discovered that I could at least to some extent handle the intricacies of comic timing.

On August 13th 1999, I went for a walk along the headland cliffs past Ballydonegan beach. At a slipway leading down to the water, I crouched on my heels and made a very solemn vow to make a go of this fictionwriting business. I was so earnest that I imagine my lips were moving. But I believe that mad ritual gestures like this are very necessary for emerging writers, and I still hold to this date as my writer’s birthday – I was about
to get fucking serious about things.

I planned to make a trip to Butte, Montana, in the autumn. I would soak up the reverberations of the place, and then I’d go to Spain early in the new year and write a second draft of the novel. I can’t remember what the novel was called.

3

In late October 1999, at a room in the Capri motel, in Butte, Montana, I tearfully decided to pack in the Butte, Montana novel. I could sense that my abilities at this time were just not up to it. In fact I was years away from it. I had dutifully filled notebook after notebook at the Butte, Montana library with nuggets of Butte, Montana lore.

I even met a ninety-nine-year-old man who had been brought up on the Beara Peninsula, and who played me some Irish songs on his fiddle; his name was Yank Harrington. Big old lunks in cowboy hats paraded the Butte, Montana streets, and they had boiled-ham farmer heads on them straight out of Beara, and the phonebook was full of Harringtons and Sullivans, but I couldn’t get any purchase on the material. I didn’t know how to bring it down, to reduce it; it kept opening out, and expanding, and eventually it just floated away, into the blue, blue skies above the Rocky Mountains.

4

I was living for a few weeks in a pensione, in a former convent, in the city of Alicante, in the south east of Spain. It was late January 2000, and I was writing a short story. It was set in Cork city. It was about a man living in a bedsit who became dangerously obsessed with a mouse who had taken up residence behind his fridge. Going by the prose on
him, this fellow appeared to be a Corkonian first cousin of Vladimir Nabokov. The story was called The Linoleum Years and a print-out of it is probably to be found in a box somewhere in the far room in County Sligo but I can’t bring myself to go and root it out. I’m sure it’s not up to much, but I do know that when I was writing it, I heard a kind of resounding click – for the first time, a character seemed to come fully to life on the page for me; however wonky its construction, or predictable its denouement, this story contained a character who seemed to live and breathe.

I had saved enough money to avoid freelance work for a few weeks at least. I spent all of those warm winter days writing fiction. I lay on my belly on the bed in the pensione and I scrawled the sentences on a pad – I had read that James Joyce used to work in this way. I was obsessed with the sound of the sentences; I tried to put as much vitality and music
in them as I could. I was also obsessed with the fact that James Joyce preferred white wine to red, saying that white wine was like electricity, red wine was like the blood of an ox. I was trying hard to drink white wine rather than red – I was buying it in cartons at the supermercado.

‘Supermercado’ was about the extent of my Spanish.

Even at this relatively early stage, I knew that I would never have a quiet, unshowy prose style. Sometimes I yearned for one, for a clean, brisk, pared-down style, clear as glass, unobtrusive … but my style wasn’t like that at all; my prose behaved like an hysterical step-dancing gingerhaired child leppin’ up and down on the page looking for attention. I
discovered that winter in Spain that there is nothing mysterious about prose style – your style is merely a direct projection of your personality.

And after a certain period of time has elapsed – I was by now thirty-one years old – there isn’t much you can do about your personality; mine was composed of hysterical nervous energy and I was just going to have to go with it on the page.

After I had finished a writing session, I would walk the streets, aiming for the supermercado, walking in a cloud of distraction amid the happy babble of the voluble Spanish city and, as I didn’t have the language, I was entirely entrapped within my own, but now happily so.

5

I have carried over a kind of guilt complex from the 1990s and early 2000s – I don’t think I worked as hard as I could have at my writing; I was going at it in an occasional (and, just occasionally, in an ecstatic) way. Now, to counteract this guilt, I work like a dog.

For the past nine of these twenty-five years, I have been mostly based in an old RIC barracks, in south County Sligo, and seven days a week I perform the three-step commute across the backyard to the former turf shed that is now my office. Or the Black Lizard Studio, as I have dubbed it, because one day a black lizard walked across a
print-out of my novel Beatlebone, then close to being finished, and I immediately got down on the floor and wrote a black lizard into the text. I did so because I believe that a kind of sympathetic magic should occur around the edges of one’s writing projects; if it doesn’t, the project is probably fucked.

I write stories, novels, plays, film scripts and essays in the shed, and maybe on one or two days of the seven, it seems to be going well. But most days are sluggish, and the brain feels dull, and I’d rather be doing other things. But I persevere, and now and again, just for a while, the hand feels guided across the page.

I feel like I’ve earned the good days, because if I have not always worked as hard as I could have, I have stayed true at least to the idea of this practice, to this strange occult business of making fictions come alive in the world. I have stayed true to it for a quarter of a century now and sometimes writing no longer seems like the thing I do, it seems like the thing I am.

Kevin Barry is the author of the novels Beatlebone and City of Bohane and the story collections Dark Lies the Island and There Are Little Kingdoms. He also edits Winter Papers alongside his partner Olivia Smith. His awards include the IMPAC Award, the Goldsmiths Prize, the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Prize and the Rooney Prize. His stories have appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, The Stinging Fly and elsewhere. He also writes plays and screenplays. He lives in County Sligo.

Extracted from Beyond The Centre: An Irish Writers Centre Anthology, out now. 

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