Colin Barrett: You write a book and – my God – people expect you to know what it’s about

I started thinking about how I look while writing – the thought appalls me

The past few years I’ve lived in Toronto. For this piece I thought I’d write about what, if any, impact that move has had on my writing, given my second book and second collection of short stories, Homesickness, is out imminently, given that six of the eight stories in Homesickness were written here in Canada, though they are mostly set in Ireland, and mostly in Mayo, in the west of Ireland.

As is my usual process, I sat in my chair in front of my laptop at the kitchen table and tried to think about this question, Toronto and the writing of my book. Only instead of thinking about Toronto, or even my book, I started thinking about how I looked sitting in my chair thinking about Toronto and/or my book. I started thinking about how you look writing, what happens to your body when you are doing it, what an observer might witness.

This brought to mind the general corniness of film and TV depictions of the physical act of writing. You know how it goes: the writer character begins writing and a voiceover or some unobtrusive but stirring sequence of orchestral music accompanies a montage of their fingers dancing rapidly across the keys of a typewriter or keyboard, the poor actor obliged to assume a succession of pensive frowns suggestive of cogitation and inchoate revelation, though what they invariably end up looking like is someone suffering gastral rumblings in an ad for suppositories.

It does appall me to think of what writing really looks like, by which I mean what I look like writing. My suspicion is that I probably look like someone who does not look well: slumped in my chair at a hapless diagonal to my laptop, much of the time not pressing buttons, not doing anything, staring at the wall of the screen in a pulverised pair of sweats or a wrinkled shirt I couldn’t be bothered to iron, because while I am at work I won’t see anyone, ideally I won’t even leave the house, not if the writing is going well and I’m somehow exempt from my other daily obligations, though mostly I am not.


I’ll sit there and eventually I’ll jab at the keys, fitfully but doggedly, and sometimes in a rally of conviction, but before long I’ll return to my slump and begin, perhaps, to bite my nails or pick my nose with impunity, deep inside the privacy of my concentration.

But if I do all this long and often enough, the writing gets done, which is the main thing.

Back to my idea of Toronto. What images or connotations the notion of Toronto conjured while I sat there. Needless to say, everything is always compressed and spongy and squishy, temporally, mnemonically, everything is already stacked spectrally back on top of each other. This is not just a property of pandemic time, but also, at least to me, of pre-pandemic time.

Writing is a way of getting out of writing; you write the thing so the thing is an end in itself, complete

What came to me first was a bakery in Kensington market where, for a while, I went to buy bread for the week. You select your freshly baked loaf and hand it to them and they offer to pre-slice it. You say yes and they put it in a mechanical slicing machine and turn the machine on. The machine starts making a tremendous humming noise and for a moment the loaf resembles a big bee trying to take flight – it begins vibrating in place and seems even to levitate just a little as the blades or whatever they are, spindle-thin and slicing so swiftly they can be seen only as a fleeting blur, ribbon the loaf into fluttering wing-like slices of identical width within seconds. The machine is turned off or times out, the noise and vibrations stop, and the slices settle back into the ghost of their original shape, and you have your pre-sliced loaf.

I'd love to stick my head in there, I often thought.

By which I mean I’ve a head on me like a loaf of bread. A brain like a loaf of bread.

You write a book and – my God – people expect you to know what it’s about. They look at you like you might know. And half the point is that writing is a way of getting out of writing; you write the thing so the thing is an end in itself, complete, and no more writing is required from you; of course you want other writing, and other talk, to ensue – the writing and talk of readers. But you, the writer, you’d like to believe you’re done.

But nothing is ever done, is it? You finish a thing and another thing starts. In part, how you know a thing is finished is precisely because other things start beginning (if you’re lucky, if people care enough).

So even though I know I’ve a brain on me like a loaf of bread, I’m not immune to wanting to sound clever, or like I know what I’m talking about, like I have accumulated some sort of knowledge.

I am coming to think that a writer's skill, or whatever it is, lies in evoking a pattern, but just enough of a pattern, that the reader can fill in the gaps

All it boils down to is that I work in images. Images come to me. I don’t know anything about them. But I trust them and I follow them.

Stories proceed by image.

That’s all you need (or me, anyway) to anchor the story, to build out from. Events, logic, sequentiality, back story – all that will come, all that will, in a sense, take care of itself.

And what I am trying to do with these images is build a story, yes, but also locate a space or spaces in the story where the reader can become active. These spaces can sometimes look like gaps. It's not that you're cutting corners or being wilfully abstruse and holding things back from the reader to annoy them. Increasingly, I am coming to think that a writer's skill, or whatever it is, lies in evoking a pattern, but just enough of a pattern, that the reader can fill in the gaps, or extend their imagination beyond where the pattern ends, and so come to their own conclusion about things.

I think, as a reader, it is a pleasure to read like this, to have the writer do this for and to you. It is a pleasure to not quite be given what you want. To be, occasionally, temporarily, at a loss. I am very careful to try to do this in my stories.

Another thing: someone once asked me, years ago, what my next book would be about and I said, something like, whatever it would be about, it would be about Mayo. And – I don’t know, maybe they did, maybe they didn’t– but my impression is that they made a face, a brief, mild one, a frown of incredulity, or unimpressedness, and the idea they did not articulate but which I thought they might be having was that Mayo (that is, depictions of provincial, small town, rural life) was a finite or provisional thing. A thing a writer might start out taking as a subject, but which they would presently move beyond.

(I am reading a lot into a two-second face I saw years ago.)

So all I can say of the eight stories in Homesickness is that while they are mostly set in and are about Mayo, they are in it and about it in a different way. As in my first book, Young Skins, Mayo stands in for – its limits and dimensions coincide with – the world, but the world, that is the world of Mayo. As in Homesickness, a more unstable and provisional site, a place that can be left and returned to, a place that can be retrospected into abstraction, attenuated to an outline superimposed upon itself.

In the last of the stories, The 10, 18-year-old Mayo native Danny Faulkner has lately returned to his hometown of Ballina after spending most of his adolescence pursuing a Premier League football career that did not, in the end, pan out.

His life in Ballina should have been the path not taken; instead he finds himself back there, only his home no longer quite feels like home, much as he wants it to. At one point he remembers the fiance of his girlfriend’s older sister, a man he only vaguely knew and who died young and suddenly. Standing in the kitchen of his girlfriend’s family home, Danny feels that if the dead man were to rematerialise and join them in the kitchen, he would not feel in any way surprised.

I’m still at the table, here in Toronto. It’s been a while. Everything has been a while. Sometimes I forget I am still here.

Homesickness is published by Jonathan Cape on March 10th