A Q&A with Colin Barrett, this month’s Irish Times Book Club author
‘I would have loved to have read the Game of Thrones series when I was around 14 or so. I would have definitely thought they were the greatest books ever written’
Colin Barrett: I”’ve enjoyed and been a beneficiary of the short story’s periodical Lazarus act. It’ll be proclaimed dead again soon enough so hopefully we can enjoy it while it’s around. Though the good news is that not only is the casket never actually buried, the casket is always actually empty.”
Young Skins, Colin Barrett’s debut work, has won the Guardian First Book Award, The Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize, the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature and was longlisted for the Folio Prize. It has just been published in the United States to a rave review in the New York Times on March 12th, which predicts that never mind the bestseller list, Young Skins is destined to end up on the curriculum.
“It lives up to its laurels,” writes John Williams, who admires Barrett's “exact and poetic” style and “striking maturity”, observing: “what separates his tough characters from those written by others is how carefully he applies the details that soften their edges”. There is one caveat, however: “The only question after reading the book is whether Mr Barrett’s groove is quite as wide as it is deep. When he strays from the usual types and dives – most notably in Diamonds, about two people who meet at an AA meeting – the results are less memorable.” Nevertheless, the verdict is overwhelmingly positive: “Mr Barrett does foundational things exceedingly well – structure, choices of (and switches in) perspective – without drawing attention to them. These are stories that are likely to be taught for their form ... His judgment is better than authoritative; it is imaginative and enlarging.”
What was the first book to make an impression on you?
Andy McNab’s Bravo Two Zero. I can still recall the passage where Andy describes the difficulty of cutting through a human windpipe – it’s quite tough and resilient, and takes a great deal more effort than the single clean slice that usually suffices in movies. I was, oh, around seven or so.
What was your favourite book as a child?
I can’t remember what else I really read, other than Bravo Two Zero. I liked pulpy comic books, which had drama, stakes, mortality. Books specifically for children held little appeal for me: though they appear comical and cute to adults, children are often very grave and serious about the world. And they don’t like it when their childishness is overtly advertised to them. At least I didn’t. Always detested Roald Dahl and that kind of stuff.
And what is your favourite book or books now?
Just reread The Sound and the Fury. It’ll take a few weeks to get it out of my system. It’s good. Ugly, unwieldy, radiant.
What is your favourite quotation?
“Look in thine arse and write” always gets a chuckle.
Who is your favourite fictional character?
Don’t have one.
Who is the most under-rated Irish author?
I’ve not read enough Irish writing to pronounce on that with any authority.
Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?
I’ve never read a book in ebook form, so dead trees win by default.
What is the most beautiful book you own?
I prefer a bog standard paperback than anything else because they are portable and they are what I tend to keep. I’ve a tatty Faber and Faber paperback of Jesus Son from 1992 that has nice artwork.
Where and how do you write?
Anywhere, and laboriously.
What book changed the way you think about fiction?
The Sound and the Fury changed how I think about fiction two days ago.
What is the most research you have done for a book?
Research itself is often an elaborate means of procrastinating. Everything else is research.
What book influenced you the most?
That’s hard to answer, bcause there are books you read you want to emulate, and there are books you read you don’t want to emulate. Learning what you don’t want to do is very useful, even necessary.
What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?
If the kid has any chance they’ll immediately take the book I give them, whatever it is, and throw it in the bin on principle. Even if it turns out later they love the book, they should come to it on their own terms.
What book do you wish you had read when you were young?
I would have loved to have read the Game of Thrones series when I was around 14 or so. I would have definitely thought they were the greatest books ever written.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Spend a few years earning a regular paycheck to see if you can then live without money, cos you’ll spend most of the time with none. And be suspicious of people who tell you art is not about money. I’ve no interest in getting rich, but you need enough that you can get by and write. It’s tough, but you can work a dayjob and write too, and it’s good to have an experience of that as early as possible. Most of your early stuff will be rubbish anyway.
What weight do you give reviews?
I can’t help but read them. Thankfully, most of mine so far have been mainly positive. What I do is read them once and not go back to them. Of course they’ll hurt if they are bad, but that’s the game.
Where do you see the publishing industry going?
It’ll be okay as long as it keeps in mind what The Architect tells Neo in The Matrix Reloaded as the two debate the impasse the human vs machine struggle has reached: “There are levels of survival we are prepared to accept.”
What writing trends have struck you lately?
I’ve enjoyed and been a beneficiary of the short story’s periodical Lazarus act. It’ll be proclaimed dead again soon enough so hopefully we can enjoy it while it’s around. Though the good news is that not only is the casket never actually buried, the casket is always actually empty.
What lessons have you learned about life from reading?
To go in prepared to saw should you need to open a man’s windpipe.
What has being a writer taught you?
Filing tax returns is a pain in the hole but makes you feel like a grown-up.
Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Dinner parties are a nightmare for me. Dread them. Having a bunch of resurrected writers float through the door would only exacerbate my anxieties around this social ritual. But if pushed, I’d like to meet Kafka’s ghost, to see if he could see the funny side of how things turned out for him thanks to his disobedient literary executor.
What is your favourite word?
Knuckle. Just look at it.