Kevin Barry


Kevin Barry at Word Factory (c) Paul McVeigh

Kevin Barry is the author of two short story collections. His first, There Are Little Kingdoms won The Rooney Prize for Irish Literature and Dark Lies The Island, won the Edge Hill Prize, shortly after this interview. He also won The Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award for Beer Trip to Llandudno. His first novel, City of Bohane, won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize and the Authors’ Club First Novel Award. He is also a stage and screen writer. 

The interview took place at the Society Club Soho on a blistering hot day when Kevin had just landed from Ireland and before the astonishing  reading of his New Yorker story Ox Mountian Death Song you can watch thanks to Word Factory.

McVeigh:  You use humour a lot and it seems to really capture readers. There are those of the opinion that by writing humorously you’re not taken seriously as a writer. I was wondering what you thoughts are on this?

Barry: I think you’re absolutely right. I think in some quarters there’s a perception that if it’s funny then it can’t be serious. And I believe very much to the contrary. As a reader, a lot of my very favourite stuff is at some level funny, even my favourite novelist would be someone like Saul Bellow, who is fundamentally a comic writer, and Philip Roth. Hilary Mantel is in many ways a comic writer, there’s a lot of other things going on but they are funny as well. For me, comedy is a very natural human mode, a very natural form, it tends to be how we get through life, in the “if you didn’t laugh you’d cry” sense. It’s natural for me to write in a comic mode. I‘m troubled by the term comic fiction or comic novel, in the “Boom-tish” one-liners and zingers and I hope I don’t do that. And there’s nothing worse than intended comedy, trying too hard to be funny, it has to spring naturally.

McVeigh: From situation and character.

Barry: And very often comedy for me comes from dialogue, what people are saying to each other, little power struggles that are going on.

McVeigh: Certainly in Northern Ireland, I think humour is our weapon of choice. It’s a sword we swing when we want to cut people down, so it has a lot of power too. There’s a lot of humour in Irish writing as a whole, there’s a lot of darkness too, and I was thinking about it almost as though humour is a natural resource of Ireland. I was wondering do you think that it terms of Irish writers, that it’s in our DNA?

Barry: People talk about a great tradition of writing but there’s actually several different traditions. There’s a seriously mischievous, a really inventive one, that goes back to people like Flann O’Brien and back to Jonathan Swift and up through to Joyce – he was funny in his day. Beckett, in his way, wrote dark comedy, and I think definitely too, with Irish people, there’s a natural kind of gallows humour and a real, dark, dark, dark, dark humour… “Laughter in the dark” as Nabokov used to call it. And certainly I hope that comes through in my own work.

McVeigh: I wanted to ask you about your beginnings as writer, your journey. Did you have a philosophy when you started out? Was there a plan? Or was it more of an organic process?

Kevin: I was working a freelance journalist in my 20’s. And doing fine. Writing reviews and arts interviews. For good newspapers, The Irish Times, The Guardian, but I wasn’t getting happy. I knew there was a part of my brain that I wasn’t using and I should be using. I was writing bits of fiction but not in a very disciplined way. I’d be writing when I crawled in from a nightclub at 3 in the morning, sentences that seemed like genius at the time but that wouldn’t stand up to the light of day. Mid-to-late 20s I started getting serious about it, I suppose. I knew I had ability and it struck me that what was required was a huge amount of work.

Weirdly, with short stories, writers respond to the forums available for their work and I was on my first ever trip to the US in, I think, 1998 and I remember being in a big book shop outside Seattle and seeing all these shelves of small literary journals from all over the US and flicking through them and thinking “Wow, there are places where short stories are published,” and I started searching them out and just because these tiny audiences were out there I started sending my work to places like North Dakota and getting them published, like the Adirondack Review and places like that. I was attempting various dead novels we all have at home but the first pieces that I could get the sense that they were working out was the short stories. I in no way see it as an apprentice form for a novel I think that short stories are harder, in some ways, than the novel…

McVeigh:  You were drawn there…

Barry: Yes, and I think that Irish writers are. I have no idea why? I could give you some bullshit about the oral tradition but I have no idea. But the evidence is there. We’re drawn to it. We’re good at them. For me, short stories, I write them out of impatience. I want to get a finished thing on the desk, good or bad, just something that’s done. I write scripts a lot of the time now as well. And novels, there’s years that go into them. Scripts less so. If a story works well I can be finished in a couple of days, if it’s going well – not all stories do. I write loads and only a very small proportion will go out into the world. I’d say one in ten or twelve.

McVeigh: Really?

Barry: Most are shit you know? You just have to write enough to get the good ones.

Outside Word Factory, Society Club Soho © Paul McVeigh



McVeigh: Going back, you developed a relationship with The Stinging Fly who published your first collection. How did that come about?

Barry: They sponsored the Davy Byrne’s Short Story Prize in 2004, which I was short-listed for, and

Declan Meade of Stinging Fly had organized.  And through that they started publishing a few stories in the magazine…

McVeigh: Which isn’t easy. I read somewhere Declan turns down 95% of submissions.

Barry: It’s very tough now. He turns down named writers all the time. And anyway, after publishing a couple of stories, Declan, in his very casual kind of way said “If you had another eight or nine we do could a little book.” I had about nine and wrote and another five or six on the spur of that. There Are Little Kingdoms – it’s done amazingly. It keeps going. It sells. It seems to have legs.

McVeigh: When you look back, can you see a progression from that collection to the new one, Dark Lies the Island? Do you see a different writer?

Barry: I don’t think there’s much in it in terms of quality. I think the key difference is that the first book has stories in from over seven years and the second one is over two or three years. I think in the second collection therefore the recurring themes are more evident and the first one is a bit more disparate and kind of spread out. Interestingly, there’s a collection of stories coming out in Italian in about a year’s time and they’ve taken stories from either one, a selection from the two books.

McVeigh: The Greatest Hits. The Best of Barry.

Barry: Kind of… and they work well together. There were 5 years between the collections and you’re not going to be putting one out every two years or something. Especially the way I write, in the most uneconomical way, where you throw most of it away and you have two or three you’re happy with after a year.

McVeigh: That’s a lot of ideas. And a lot of material thrown away.

Barry: What I hope is that readers would read them slowly, books of short stories, not read two or three a night. I think a short story is an intense prose experience so I urge readers to spread them out a bit over a few weeks.

McVeigh: Of course, from your second collection, you had the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award-winning story Beer Trip to Llandudno. What was that like winning something that big at that time in your career?

Barry: It was fantastic. It was a big chunk of change. It was also a week or two before the second collection came out so I couldn’t have timed it better. It picked a lot more coverage than it would of done. Prizes are important. They keep books and they keep writers in the centre of the conversation. Which is where we have to keep them, to keep these going because it’s tough now for books and writers, they’re being squeezed from all sides. It’s very healthy in Ireland, in lots of ways writers are well supported, people read a lot, people are open to stuff. I think in the UK it’s more difficult. People are being pushed a lot. Bookshops are taking in fewer books by new writers. It’s getting hard for new writers to come through, in the UK and the US. Ireland has quite a good set up I think. It’s very important to not get complacent about it.

McVeigh: I think your second collection is darker in many respects…

Barry: I think possibly so, yeah.

McVeigh: And I also found a lot of lonely people, a lot of lost people, whole towns that felt desolate and depressed, where people seem to have no choice but to turn to drink or turn on each other, or turn in on themselves. I wondered where that view of world comes from?

(c) Paul McVeigh

Barry: Drama comes out of unhappiness really, someone, I think it was Iris Murdoch, said “Happiness writes white. It doesn’t show up on the page.” Happy people are very boring and very dull. (Laughs). A lot of characters and you’re absolutely right, in the second collection are pushed to extremities, and are being squeezed and are struggling, very evidently in the title story for example, and it’s very interesting how we react when we’re in extreme situations as well. I come and go from realism as a writer, a lot of them aren’t strictly realistic, so something like The Fjord of Killary is an end-of-the-world, rising tide, apocalypse.

Where I’m always interested working as a writer is just out on the edge, on the cusp of believability, so you read it and you say “Ach, no, come on…” but still just keep going along with it. And trying to sell that to the reader. I like the idea of the writer as kind of trickster figure, just about believable and drag them along.

McVeigh: I think that works well, the humour and playfulness, if you are talking about these lost people, it helps lift the difficult or heavy subject matter. But it’s not just the people that are dark, their environment is too. I was struck that the buildings, the landscape itself – for example, when you talk about mountains nearly every mention is tense, foreboding, they’re hated by the people who live there or visit. For the characters in your stories the environment seems to be against them. Is there something about Ireland itself in there?

Barry: I think the sense of place… very often my stories start with a place in mind. One of my more esoteric beliefs as a writer is that human feelings settle into the stones of the place. There are happy towns and there are sad towns. And there are happy mountains and sad mountains. And the story I’ll read at the Word Factory is called Ox Mountain Death Song which was in The New Yorker last year, and that came from cycling around the Ox Mountains near where I live in County Sligo. And anytime I’ve cycled through, I’ve got this eerie, weird fucking buzz, like, a really strange feeling about the place. It’s very austere. It’s all wet, miserable and windy. I go out a lot on the bike and everytime I went through it I’d think there’s a story here surely. It’s a perfect landscape for something and it did eventually.

There’s a story in my first collection Burn The Bad Lamp which is purely a love letter to the city of Cork where I spent a lot of my 20s and I absolutely loved the place and I was bit homesick for it when I wrote the story. And Liverpool when I lived there, Beer Trip To Llandudno, which won the big prize, that comes out of the time when my wife was lecturing there and we lived in a big flat, it was very nice but the heating wasn’t good so in the winter we went to pub a lot just for warmth.

McVeigh: You love pubs. In your work.

Barry: Yeah well, they’re good places to eavesdrop and sometimes as a story writer you’re gifted. One night I was in a bar, it’s called The Lion Tavern in Liverpool, and saw this photocopied stack and it was the Beer Club Newsletter. And there were reports on recent outings. And as a story writer you’re thinking “Gift! Absolute gift!” When you’re handed a story like that it’s rare and you know straight away it’s going to work.

McVeigh: We’ve talked about the humour, the dark places and the edge of believability in your writing but there’s also stories of real tenderness and sadness of characters connecting or missed connections, like in Across the Rooftops.

Barry: In some ways my idea of a story is quite traditional. Centred around these cusp moments on a life where people change and it’s never quite evident at the time and maybe ten/twelve years later, you look back and think “Wow! Things could have really gone the other direction at that time,” and you didn’t see it. It’s those kind of moments when people change. Those often pivot points in a life that only come clear with a bit of distance. That often makes a story.

McVeigh: Your novel, the strongest character in there, for me, was the city itself. The creation of Bohane is a real achievement, it’s so detailed, the streets/areas, the tribes that live there. And wider into its history, fashions… how did you go about creating something like that?

Barry: It all starts by the way people talk. If you get the voices then you can get everything about the people – you can open out their place from that. I hope Bohane is its own imaginary city out there in a vague Ireland-type place. The speech of it comes from working class speech in Limerick and Cork and it is a unique take on the English language and it’s never shown up in Irish literature much. Those communities weren’t in the way of producing literature. Most of what I wanted to do with City of Bohane was have a good time and have fun and I had a ball. I had attempted novels where there was a lot of pacing up and down and hand wringing. It struck me, belatedly, that if I’m not having fun at this end of the process maybe the reader isn’t having much fun at the other end. It was great fun to do all the voices and describe all the clothes. The great thing about writing a novel is there’s no budget restrictions. I can have vast gang fights and costumes changes and then love triangles – someone described it recently as an opera. And that’s very much what it is. It’s Mack the Knife or West Side Story.

McVeigh: I saw it as a Western.

Barry: It’s very much a Western.

McVeigh: There’s the Sheriff of the lawless town and his old enemy returns, whose old girlfriend is now the Sheriff’s wife… also there’s a mafia/gangster feeling with the gangs/tribes fighting over the city. All American story influences in those respects.

Barry: I suppose as a writer you are a magpie and you’re looking for anything. You hope that if there’s enough of these influences, maybe you’ll meld them together and make your own thing out of it. I think the city works – as a city – and when you’ve built that piece of real estate then it’s always tempting to think that at some further point “Will I go back out there?”. So maybe somewhere down the line – certainly not the next novel – but maybe I’ll be brave enough to go back to see what’s happening in Bohane.that shines. So there is a whole stew of influences, a lot from what I would have been watching, DeadwoodThe Sopranos and The Wire. 70’s trashy gangster films I would have loved as a kid like The Warriors and The Wanderers. And what you’re listening to as music. I love late 70s dub reggae Trojan Records, that came into it. All of these things fed into it.

McVeigh: And did you come down on a reason why you think this novel was different than the dead novels you referred to. What was different this time?

Barry: I didn’t have a publishing contract or anything but the morning I started it I knew it would be published –no doubt. I was “Yeah, this is what I’m supposed to be writing at this point in my career.” It was kind of the realization that it was set in the future, which I didn’t know till I half way through the first chapter but that really freed it – that it didn’t have to any be true to the actual world out there and I could just invent and make it wild. I wrote the first draft very quickly, in about 13 weeks, because I knew it was a big kind of language performance and what I wanted was a torrential kind of rush “Bleeaah” onto the page, you know. So that was a very tense fucking experience where I was clinically nuts for about 3 months writing it. And then I went slower for about 6/7 months putting more story and structure in there and twisting the characters but initially my big thing was to get it down quick because I wanted that kind of flow for the language and I wanted a rhythm to it. And “it’s a quare one” as they say, Bohane, it very much has to be read with the ears, you have to listen to what they are saying. I was very keen to make readers work a bit at the beginning; it takes 50 or 60 pages, I think. We’ve gotten lazier, I think. There was a time when you’d happily pick up a Russian novel and spend 90 pages struggling with the huge cast of characters and the whole world and then suddenly you get that moment when you’re in! And you can’t stop and you get the sense that you’ve earned the book, if you like. And I think that’s something that’s has very much changed because of online and so forth that novelists are expected to get to the reader much more quickly. You have to get him in five or ten pages which is hard to do.

McVeigh: Writers are under pressure to market their writing or curtail it – make it shorter, smaller cast, faster, funnier…

Barry: I think it’s important to keep you attention within the peripheries of the desk and everything else will follow from that. Not thinking “Will this be published? Will this be bought?” because that’s inviting disaster. I think just think about the story and what’s happening on your desk and if you’re doing it right all else will follow from that.


Here’s another part of the interview focusing on short stories which originally appeared online at Word Factory.


Q – In your introduction to Town and Country, the collection of new Irish short stories you edited for Faber,  you say you sent out letters to numerous authors asking them to contribute to the anthology. Were they writers you’d met along the way or whose work you admired or…?

A – Just as a reader really, I suppose. One of the things I’d wanted to do with the anthology was to not just go for obvious short story writers, so there’s a lot of people in there who wouldn’t necessarily be the first thing you thought of when you saw their names. So people like Paul Murray who’s very much a novelist, Michael Harding is known best as a newspaper columnist and an actor in Ireland, I always thought he was an amazing writer. For the last few years I’ve been reading this brilliant young blogger based down in Galway/Claire called Lisa McInerney and I heard on the grapevine that she was writing fiction and I thought “Let’s try her and see what comes in,” you know, and it was really exciting. And there are a few of what you might call bankers in there, I suppose, short story specialists, like Eilis Ni Dhuibhne. You know you’re going to get good stuff in and Dermot Healy is going to send you really good stuff. It was very exciting just to see what this motley crew would send to me. It was really good fun to see the various approaches and ways of attacking a short story.

In a way, short story, as a phrase, or as a description… I increasingly like short fiction better. Short story still conjures up an image of something well made… a story with an epiphany in the second last paragraph and I think there are very different ways of attacking a story that are evident in this book.

Q – I know that emerging writers will be thinking “Where did he find these newer writers?” Where should they be sending their work? How do they get attention?

A – There are a few very important journals in Ireland – I suppose Stinging Fly, a very obvious one, and The Dublin Review, where you are going to see younger writers publish early stories. And I was asking around. I was on to Claire Keegan  but Claire didn’t have a story, they were all spoken for or not ready, and she did point me towards two emerging writers who I think she taught in workshops or courses, and she said “Try these two and see what they have, I think they’re really special”. I was just noodling around and asking around. I suppose all anthologies are varied and this one is madly varied in the way that people attack an opportunity which is what a short piece of fiction is. I think there’s lots of fun to be had with this book.

Q – Not all these stories are set in Ireland. Or by obviously Irish writers.

A – No it’s quite interesting so Julian Gough is coming in from Berlin, Greg Baxter who is an honorary Irishman. He’s a Texan really but he was in Dublin long enough to gain status (laugh) as honorary Irishman. Greg is also in Berlin. Molly McCloskey is back now. I was dealing with Molly for the US. And geographically the stories are spread around quite a bit. We are a race of people that shifts around quite a bit.

Q – I was looking through the biog’s and I couldn’t see a Northern Irish writer.

A – Is there not? Oh Jesus Christ.

Q – Being from Belfast I was like “Hold on…”

A – Oy. Oy, oy! Glenn Patterson will kill me. There’ll be trouble now. Oh Jesus! (He grabs me copy of the anthology and scans the authors) That’s shocking.

Q – Did you notice any recurring themes, concerns… threads woven through the collection?

A – A sense of displacement actually. We were just talking about this spread of geographic locations. That sort of ‘home’ feeling, you know. A lot about Ireland and England. A strange interdependence between the two places and kind of love/hate, sustaining some kind of, at times, belligerent relationship between the two countries. Yes, just… movement and displacement came through quite strongly in some of the stories. Greg Baxter’s, Dermot’s story as well. But what I was looking for rather than recurring themes or whatever, is what I’m always after as reader, intensity you know, I want a seriously fucking intense experience when I’m reading a short story. And intensity can take many different forms. It might be comic intensity. It can be a very sad story and intensity of feeling, so that’s what I’m after and there’s some intense motherfuckers in this book.

Q – I noticed a difference in the stories by the male and female writers in the collection. Did you feel that? Not only in subject matter but in form. I felt that by-in-large the women writers told stories. The men seemed to be more playful or experimental, with structure, and language, and therefore more challenging. It didn’t seem that story was necessarily their main drive.

A – I think that’s a very reasonable response to it. There are some very serious prose stylists in there so with someone like the great Desmond Hogan you are going to get a seriously intense prose performance and it terms of storytelling there’s a story there but you have to work, to go with it and dig it out. I think he’s an incredible writer and I’m really thrilled and honoured to have a piece from him in the book.

It’s a mad generalisation I know but I find that female writers can be very internal, at the soul, an intensity of feeling and maybe men are inclined to go for a more broader, open sweep kind of a thing.

Q – One last thing. Reading live has become a big thing, in Ireland as well as here in the UK, and you have a bit of a reputation. People have said to me “Oh, I heard read in Cork and I’ll never forget it…” It’s obviously part of you.

A – I love to read, yeah.

Q – What is that?

A – I’m kind of a frustrated actor, I work a little bit in the theatre as well so, I enjoy it. And there’s absolutely no reason why writers should be performing. And it’s unfair. A lot or writers hate to read their work. I get very nervous, every time, but you have to get the nerves to do it well. That’s your juice. Your nervous energy. I’m theatrically inclined. So I perform them and I like to do it. It gets you out of the house.

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