“It’s a spooky business, in some ways,” Kevin Barry says of the elusive craft of writing a short story. That Old Country Music, his third collection, was published just this Thursday. It’s a selection of stories written over the past eight years on Barry’s inimitable weather-drenched canvas, populated by a restless and heartbroken cast made vital through his lightly dazzling sentences.
He had about 20 completed stories from that period, from which he chose 11 for this book. “You can get lucky with them and they will come quickly,” he says. “My two favourites are the first and last. And I got them both immediately after I finished a novel.”
Barry is sitting with his legs folded at his writing desk in “the shed” where, each morning, he makes the short walk from the kitchen door of the home in Sligo he shares with his wife, writer and editor Olivia Smith. (The couple have lived in and refurbished the whitewashed former RIC barracks over the past 13 years.) He has spoken often about the importance to him of this morning writing ritual, sleepy and fighting off the conscious world of emails and news as he crosses the paving stones armed with a cup of tea.
The shed, formerly a holding cell, is a pleasant, simply furnished room on this noontime: a tidy desk, a well-worn sofa and a stove, which is lit. But there have to be mornings when it’s still dark and the rain is lashing and the fire is not yet lit that test the resolve.
Courteously, Barry offers a seat by the stove while, mindful of Covid-19 protocols, sitting beside the open door. Urgent bursts of rain sweep across Ballinafad every so often. “I think we are fairly well ventilated,” he says, rarely a concern in south Sligo in mid-October.
Some of the stories dreamt up in this room have already travelled, on to the pages of The Irish Times as well as the New Yorker and through the theatres and festival halls where Barry delivers his mischievous readings. The oldest, Ox Mountain Death Song, was written in 2012. The most recent, Saint Catherine of the Fields, was completed in February.
“That’s a long enough period that you can see yourself changing as a writer. I think I have relaxed a bit. I have noticed that there is a natural lyric impulse in my work that I am less embarrassed about now. Previously, if there was a lyrical passage I would barb it and take the piss out of it. Have my cake and eat it. I can do this but I’m above it. Now I’m more inclined to just go with it.”
He wrote The Coast of Leitrim, about the isolated and lovelorn Seamus Ferris, who “had fallen hard for a Polish girl who worked at a cafe down in Carrick”, immediately after he finished his last novel, Night Boat to Tangier. To his surprise, he allowed love to flourish over the milky coffees and language barriers. Had he written it a decade ago, he admits, “there’d be blood on the walls”. It was also one of those stories that he heard instantly and wrote quickly.
“It is weird: it is a bit like physical fitness when you come to the end of a novel. All systems are firing and you can get an extra bit of work out of it. With Roethke [in the Bughouse], too, I had just finished Beatlebone two days before. And I told Martin Doyle [the Irish Times books editor] that I’ll have a story for you next Tuesday kind of a thing. So I had to do it.”
For that story, Roethke in the Bughouse, based on the incident that saw the American poet admitted to Ballinasloe psychiatric hospital in 1959 after suffering some kind of episode during a two-month stay on Inishbofin, Barry took himself on location, a practice he is increasingly drawn to.
“When you start a story you always have this vaulting ambition like: this is f**king going to be the one. I just felt with the Roethke one I got a language for him that was right for the character. I was looking for a mid-century glamour for the sentences.
“I never knew very much about him. I always liked the poems when I came across them. And I came across this story of him out on Bofin in Richard Murphy’s book The Kick. And this whole story where he went out there and apparently had a crack up. And people got together and said we have to get this fella off the island; he was a disaster, out drinking all night and causing havoc.
“And I wrote it over a weekend out on Bofin. It took three days to get right. One of those where it’s ....rare enough, but it just seems to be ready. It is that thing: the longer you are at it, the more mysterious it becomes. It is very hard to work out why one story works out and one doesn’t. I’m dedicated to them and I love them as a form. But I’d say one or two a year kind of work out now.”
He spent Friday night last glued to BBC Four, which showed a series of documentaries to mark what would have been John Lennon’s 80th birthday. “It was very poignant. I am sure he would have been the crankiest auld bastard alive, but still.”
For four years, Barry had Lennon’s voice – funny and caustic and nasally Scouse and universally recognisable decades after his death – bouncing around in his mind as he grappled with Beatlebone, his hallucinatory account of a visit Lennon made to a tiny island off Clew Bay, Co Mayo that he had bought in the late 1960s.
After the book was published, he met any number of local people who had met Lennon and gave him great material that was of no use. He laughs at the torture of that because there were long periods when he sat here in the shed struggling to earth the story. And to solve that, he turned inward and wrote a nonfiction interlude explaining both his fascination with the story and his research methodology.
It appears, with no warning, in chapter six of Beatlebone and whereas the previous passages are dreamy, funny and sometimes wild, his account is terse and riveting and features a haunting passage in which Barry sits eyes-closed in room No 9 of the abandoned Amethyst hotel, where he believes he may have holidayed as a child. As a literary device, it split opinion. But as a piece of writing, it contains a rare power.
“It was funny. It was completely unexpected. I was over doing something in London. And the place I always stay near King’s Cross, Cartwright Gardens. I was just in the pub there across the road and I was two years into the novel. And I started writing in a notebook as I had a pint. Just the facts of the story. To get it straight. And suddenly sentences were flowing in a very natural way. There was a sense of ease.
“And then I had started writing about my mother’s death when I was 10, which I had never written about directly before. And I was there: what the f**k is this doing showing up in my John Lennon novel? I was aware that this is something I had in common with him – that he had lost a parent young. And when you are making a biographical fiction you bring in everything possible that you can from your own experience into it. And it wrote itself very quickly in about a week.
“It felt like a gift. It’s rare enough you get weeks like that. I felt I got it with Roethke. And with Atlantic City. It’s that flow thing.”
Usually, the gales and dark of January gives the couple an excuse to flee to Spain or the southern hemisphere
In more recent years Barry has found himself increasingly drawn to writing for actors and to the vocalised potential of the written word. The latest collection is dedicated to Lucy Luck, his agent, and to Declan Meade, the Stinging Fly publisher responsible for Barry’s first short story collection, There Are Little Kingdoms (2007). Initially, Meade had to prod and cajole Barry into giving readings, little imagining the monster he was creating.
“Once I got in front of that microphone,” he laughs, “they had to drag me away with a stick.”
So these days find him busy with scripts and screenplays. He and Olivia recently finished compiling the latest edition of Winter Papers, the annual anthology they edit and produce. The gales and dark of January usually give the couple an excuse to flee to Spain or the southern hemisphere; the ongoing travel restrictions will now test their credentials as adopted Sligonians.
That’s okay. The localisation has been a balm. He sometimes thinks about how accidentally they ended up living here and how crucial it has been to the work he has written in this room.
“It was obvious when I started to read through the stories I had that some of the main themes were about the locale and about being in the northwest for 13 years now. And I often think about [John] McGahern’s great late work. I think it is all down to the fact that he moved back to the home place. His later work would have been so very different if he had stayed in Dublin and taken a job in UCD or something. So it is that thing where those decisions that seem to be nothing got to do with your creative life dictate it completely.”
And it means, of course, that there remains scattered across the countryside sets of other Barry short stories left unwritten, stories that might have been completely different in theme and tone had he and Smith ended up laying roots somewhere, say, in Cavan.
“Yeah, absolutely. In the drumlin hills,” Barry marvels, his eyes suddenly widening and then creasing in laughter at the thought.
“God knows what you’d find.”
That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry is published by Canongate