Sebastian Barry

WORK/LIFE: Sebastian Barry — novelist

the twice Man Booker-shortlisted novelist discusses his working life

Sebastian Barry was born in Dublin and studied at Trinity College, Dublin. He has written plays, poetry and fiction. Two of his novels, A Long Long Way and The Secret Scripture were shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize; the latter also won the 2008 Costa Book of the Year Award and the 2010 Irish Book of the Decade Award amongst other prizes.

What does “writing” mean?

For me it means “seeing” and “hearing” some strange “narrative” unfolding in the brain somewhere, some inexplicable dark-room in the brain, and then using the comparatively modern notation of words and other marks to “remember” it. I notice I am putting words into inverted commas and could well have put the entire answer into them.

Which book changed your life?

The Catholic catechism at school – not because of the Catholicism, as it happens, but because at school in England when I was very small I had had extreme difficulty learning to read and write. I simply couldn’t match the stuff that seemed to me to be floating in the air out of people’s mouths, with those peculiar and unhelpful squiggles. I do remember the strange shame of that, at school, and the efforts the teachers made in London to help me, even getting the prettiest girl in the class ahead of us to tutor me! But nothing worked. Until we came back to Ireland and I was put into a little local school in Dalkey, and suddenly, with that first short pithy question and answer, Who made the World? – God made the World, I was able to match a sound to a mark. So the first word I learned to read properly was God. Which might have made a priest out of me, I suppose, but it made a writer instead – or should I say a reader, probably a better occupation than either.

What are you working on at the moment?

Just the next novel, which will be delivered in May 2016 – which seems a lovely long way off, but will no doubt be with us shortly, like all the other years. I am too superstitious to say what it is about, and anyway if I knew what it was about I wouldn’t need to write it. I can say I am at the point where I have no idea how to do it.

Describe your workspace.

It is an old rector’s study in an old rectory in the Wicklow hills. There is a photograph of it on The Guardian’s website, although my wife insisted on redecorating it since that… In front of me are all the books I am reading for the task of writing the new book, beside me on the floor all the books I had to read to write The Temporary Gentleman, about bomb disposal, and Ghana (when it was the Gold Coast), which I have finally no room in the book shelves for, anywhere in the house. Old book to the right of me, new book to the front of me. Outside the Georgian window the robins that live in our garden are making their usual remark in the flowerbeds, something about them not needing books, paintings, and music, but just their own small handful of notes, and their extraordinary courage in the face of winter (though their wives go off to Portugal apparently).

The most important instrument you use?

This mighty MacBook Pro, but also, my fountain pen that I bought in America in 1984, and the bottle of black ink that has lasted me about 15 years…

What’s your most productive time of day?

Whenever I can get going, as it were. I mean, get into gear. It’s a very strange gear, and it slips a lot. How people get anything done nine to five beats me. More power to them.

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

To try and shake the awful feeling that descends, I go into the mountains with the dogs, or seek out my wife for yet another cup of coffee, and our “parliament of nothing said”, which is the best sort of parliament, except when it’s for running a country.

How do you relax?

Hmm, not my strong point. Every now and then, I do relax, and think, ah, this is what people mean when they say how nice it is to relax. But I am that Bulgarian weightlifter who lifts the weights at the Olympics and for the rest of the four years, tenses those muscles. A good recipe for a bronze medal, sadly. What can one do? I loved the period of time I spent rebuilding this house, and still invent bits of work in it to do, because it is a lovely thing to come back in the evening with a glass of wine and gaze upon your evident work, a wall as may be, or even just a well dug hole. Writing doesn’t quite have that grace, for me anyway. Now that I think of it, a book haunts me somewhat, as if there is always an inner Pat Garrett just moments away from nabbing the inner Billy the Kid. So hard to relax in those circumstances.

Who and what has influenced your work?

I count myself a Tutu-ist, in that I heard Archbishop Tutu in a talk with Wole Soyinka many years ago, and he said to Wole Soyinka, vis-à-vis crimes committed by humans generally, “There is nothing a man can do that I might not have done in other circumstances.” Mr Soyinka looked at his friend a moment, as if inclined to scoff, in a friendly way, but saw that the good priest was deadly serious. Wonderful, and incidentally a very important precept for Irish history, and writing about it.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Always be immensely polite and welcoming when a reader comes up to talk to you. Because they are doing you an honour by their presence, not the other way round. (This advice came from a usually very grouchy Irish actor, who always amazed me with his sudden grace when what he called a “punter” came up to him.)

Your favourite ritual?

Getting everything straight and tidy in my workroom, and resisting doing the same to the whole house (we have 19 rooms, so that would be the whole day). When a dear friend first saw my workroom, she said, “But it’s so neat, it doesn’t look like a writer’s room at all.” No, but it looks like a builder’s room, because you better have everything in order before you start that wall.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

Making something that has life independent of you – making something that doesn’t die in its seemingly lively chains – keeping yourself out of it but putting everything you know into it, as the robin does each time he sings those few notes. Trying to remember it has little to do with yourself, that it’s a lucky gift and if you don’t honour it it will be given quickly enough to another. I do love a recent remark by Richard Flanagan, “Writing is a long walk into humility.” I also revere the anonymous quote, “A novel is a piece of prose with something wrong with it.’

What do you dislike most about yourself?

My own ignorance of myself, but then, a person probably writes partly out of that. It’s always the season of mists at that old house of the self. Where is the damn door, and why are the windows blacked out?!

What are you afraid of?

I used to be afraid of not earning enough to get the kids through school and college, but that task is nearly done. But still, afraid of having no money, I suppose, or losing the ability to earn it. Somewhat afraid of many things, till the mist clears, and the actual nature of those things is revealed as a great deal more benign that I realised — mostly.

What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?

Remember, even when you are penniless, that it is an immense privilege to embark on a writing career, though it can hardly be called a career in the normal sense. But to be able to put down marks that carry in them something of life itself is an outrageous gift, and anything is worth going through for its sake.

What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?

Getting a writer I admire recently into our academy of artists. Putting my wonderful first cousin back in touch with his father, who he thought was long dead. It didn’t have an entirely happy outcome, as it happens, but still. Being with my wife for 30 years next May.

Sebastian Barry’s most recent novel is The Temporary Gentleman, published by Faber and Faber and is available from Kalahari.com. The photograph is courtesy of the Irish Times.

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