Kevin Barry is an Irish writer. Irvine Welsh called his novel City of Bohane “the best thing to come out of Ireland since Ulysses.” He’s this year’s winner of the coveted International Dublin Literary Award. For all of these reasons, we were surprised and delighted that he had some free time to converse about booze, love, and HBO with two fangirl cats.
UNI & CHLOE: Your novel, City of Bohane, was a hard-to-pin-down mix of style and genre. The stories in your recent collection Dark Lies The Island, on the other paw, are a bit easier to place: They occur in a recognizable universe, and most of them unfold in something close to ‘the present day.’ As a writer, how do you think about genre? Is it weird to move between mostly realistic short pieces and a much more tangled, quasi-sci-fi epic?
KEVIN BARRY: Okay, actually, first off? Can I say that I’m finding it ever so slightly difficult to concentrate on matters of Literature and on the huskily Homeric trials of being a Man Of Letters when you’re both staring at me with those deep, green-brown, and strangely mesmeric eyes? And when you’re making all these simpering little throaty noises? I wasn’t expecting this to be all so, well, flirtatious. But anyway, yes, genre and so forth. For a start, I think we need to accept that what people call ‘literary fiction’ is now very much a genre in itself, and probably the dullest genre of them all. I do like to bring tones or note from the proper genres into my work– from crime, fantasy, sci-fi–because they give pulp heat and narrative vim, and actually, even in my stories, I wouldn’t say that I ever totally work within the realm of realism; I tend to push things out towards the cusp of believability for the reader, and for me that’s an interesting place to operate.
The stories in Dark Lies The Island involve an eclectic cast of characters, but on the whole we’d have to say that most of them are of the drinks-too-much, rough-and-tumble, down-and-out-variety. Then again, the protagonist of the title story is a young woman whose father is a rich and successful architect. Overall, how close are your characters to the milieu in which you yourself spend your time?
Sounds like you pussies live pretty sheltered lives. I myself live in an old police station in a swamp in County Sligo, in the interior north west of Ireland (imagine a wetter Twin Peaks minus Sherilyn-Fenn-type jailbait temptations) and I actually encounter very few people of any description. There’s nobody out there, Travis. So I just sit in my little room and drool and paw at the walls (you know the form) and stare out at the endless, endless rain, and I just make the stuff up. Of course every now and again you’ve got to leave the house and listen to people, just a bit, to try and get the rhythms right. And of course elements from my own life and experience will seep in, here and there. But I would say landscape and place is very often the trigger for the stories as much as people might be.
You won 100,000 pounds when you landed the International Dublin Literary Award this year. Last we checked, that equates to about $9,100,200 USD. Congratulations! What’s the first thing you bought with this well-earned bounty?
The State of Colorado. I joke. I really shouldn’t make fun of your currency difficulties. But thanks, yes, and you know there is really nothing not to love about winning rich and important literary prizes. Long may it continue.
Our owner Scott is 50% Irish, which makes us 25% Irish, technically. Does this mean that we should watch our boozing? It seems like nothing good comes of drink, at least not in your work.
Ireland is indeed a pretty booze-soaked terrain but I would think no more so or no less so than the United States is. I understand you gals aren’t too shy about ‘lifting the arm’, as we say. But yeah, if you’re writing about Ireland, and about Irish men, in particular, alcohol is going to come into it; it’s pretty unavoidable. Used in moderation, I would have to say that I believe alcohol to be one of humanity’s most useful inventions. But if it goes in deeper and hard–well, yes, that means trouble, usually.
There’s plenty of animal imagery in Dark Lies The Island, most of it negative. The sweltering summer heat makes “a pig of a day” in ‘Beer Trip to Llandudno.’ (In the same story, the temperature is described as ‘dogs-dying-in-parked-cars weather,’ which made us LOL for obvious reasons. Ay, dogs.) The only cat-related descriptor in the book is of Silvija in ‘Berlin Arkonaplatz—My Lesbian Summer,’ who is ‘as lazy as a feline in her stride.’ What other things make you think of cats? Is ‘feline’ a positive or a negative adjective, in your book? Are you a cat person or a dog person?
Wow, I hadn’t noticed all the animalistic stuff. “Feline” is most certainly used in a positive manner here; I use it to suggest languorousness, or a kind of sexiness. I like dogs and I like cats (Did Nabokov, I wonder, ever find himself typing sentences like this?) but dogs are kind of pleasantly dumb, while cats are of course mysterious, arrogant, and very, very attractive. You blush, ladies …
Can you tell us a bit about your real life and home in Sligo? Is Wikipedia correct when it says that you finally put down roots there simply because you were sick of lugging all of your books around from one new place to the next?
Oh I moved around a great deal, yeah. There was something ludicrous like 17 addresses in 15 years at one point, from Ireland to the UK to Spain to America, and back again. The old Sligo police station presented itself–damply and in some disrepair–as an ideal place to throw down a root and, yes, to store all the books, which, as you know, tend to stack up.
Love doesn’t fare too well in this collection. Even when it exists, it’s a bit mangled, or off, or unhealthy. Could you ever see yourself writing a straightforward love story? Is there such a thing?
Hmmm, I would say the first story in the book, ‘Across The Rooftops,’ is almost a love story, or I suppose a kind of almost-love story. But love is very hard to do for a writer. It’s like happiness; it just doesn’t show up easily on the page. I’m trying to think of great books that are essentially love stories … Well, it’s all doomed romance, usually, isn’t it? Wuthering Heights, and so forth.
We recall you saying somewhere that City of Bohane owed a lot to the pacing of certain television shows, including the recent greats of the HBO canon. Are you still finding yourself inspired by TV? Would you say that some of those programs have as great of an aesthetic and artistic imprint as any Great Book, or is that sacrilege?
Let’s namecheck, first of all, what I think is the really great stuff that’s out there … Deadwood, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Sopranos. And I would think that’s about it–there’s not much else that really comes near those shows. And yes, they all make terrific narrative art, and of course many of their techniques are stolen from the novel. Each season of The Wire is like a 900-pager Russian novel from, like, 1862 … You’ve got to learn a whole world and way of speech early on, and it can be heavy going, but then something clicks, and you’re in, and it’s deeply addictive. At their best, these shows offer master classes in timing, structure, technique but I think it’s very important to remember also the one thing they can’t do: PROSE.
KEVIN BARRY: Now some questions for you. How do we feel about those ‘cat anxiety’ sweaters you see advertised in in-flight magazines? They kind of, like, judder and tremble to give a sort of cuddling sensation, right? Nice?
UNI: I wasn’t familiar with this genre of feline clothing, I must admit.
CHLOE: ‘Cat Anxiety Sweater’ reminds me of an all-pussy riot-grrrl band from Portland, circa 1995. Such caterwauling, such melodic angst! Their guitars sounded like doomsday rayguns from a far-out, much more dissonant universe.
Is it now time to reclaim the word ‘pussy’ from some of its more pejorative usages?
CHLOE: We’d have to consult someone more experienced on this linguistic issue—like Tamara Faith Berger .
Are cats neurotic?
UNI: Is it ‘neurotic’ to spend three to four hours wondering why those spots of light on the ceiling will not stop fucking moving? Is it ‘neurotic’ to pass an evening camped out next to the kitchen stove, because we once saw a mouse come out of there (on November 5, 2012), which provides an extremely high likelihood of the same thing happening again? If so, yes, we’re neurotic. But in a cuddly way, not an annoying, I-want-to-slap-you-silly Larry David way.