Sebastian Barry: ‘Part of me when I was young would have poisoned the soup of every other writer’
The new Laureate for Irish Fiction on his predecessor, Anne Enright; his neuroses as a young writer; and the book that drove him to drink
Sabastian Barry. “The public role of a writer is always going to seem infinitely more relaxed than the public role of almost anything else.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Throughout his life as a writer, Sebastian Barry has always placed a high value on privacy. But if he has any doubts about assuming his new public role, he isn’t showing them. As he ponders his appointment as the Laureate for Irish Fiction, news of which was announced on Thursday, Barry seems laid back to the point of serenity, if not jocularity.
“The public role of a writer is always going to seem infinitely more relaxed than the public role of almost anything else,” the 62-year-old says. “The best binman in the world would be more structured going around than a poor writer.”
That Barry is at ease with his new position, which he takes over from inaugural laureate Anne Enright, is testament to the experience he’s garnered as his four decades as an author. In that time he has gone from being a cocksure but brittle young poet and playwright to become, almost to his surprise, one of Ireland’s most acclaimed and accomplished novelists. He is more comfortable in himself and in his vocation.
But Barry’s readiness to accept the three-year role, which is awarded by the Arts Council in partnership with UCD, New York University and The Irish Times, was also helped by the fact that the selection panel contained fellow writers such as the poets Paul Muldoon and Michael Longley – “eternal people”, in his description.
“I do know that moment where Paul rings you, it seems very intimate and right and exciting,” he says, over coffee in the Arts Council’s offices. “It’s as if they have come en fete or in procession to your house, like an old medieval thing. And there’s something about that makes it highly validated.
“Because everyone has a proper caution about being too close to government and remaining on the margin, because that’s where you operate really. But it doesn’t seem dangerous if Paul’s asking you, for some reason.”
The laureateship caps a 12-odd month period strewn with garlands. Last January his 2016 novel Days Without End won the Costa Book of the Year award, making Barry the first novelist to win the prize twice, having previously been honoured for The Secret Scripture in 2008.
Then, during the summer, he won the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction, again for the second time. But he is aware that being made laureate, which entails teaching duties and public engagements, is an honour of a different measure. “I’m sort of mobilising myself,” he says. “I feel like I’ve been a private citizen and now I’m a private soldier for a while.”
There’s a part of me when I was young that would happily have poisoned the soup of every other writer, just to get them out of the way
The position also provides him with a high-profile platform. Enright used her tenure to highlight the inequality women endure in the literary world, be it at the hands of publishers or in the review pages. Barry applauds the way Enright used her laureateship – “she set a high bar” – but he will set a different course. “I’m conscious of her achievement, but there’s different breeds of writers.”
For one thing, Barry is not naturally given to making public pronouncements, preferring to concentrate on his work. “Usually, ‘whatever you say, say nothing’, as a certain gentleman said,” he says, quoting a poem by my late father Seamus Heaney. Barry is intimate and confiding in manner, forever searching for the right word: in conversation, it can seem as if he is sharing a secret he has just stumbled across.
Nevertheless, if an issue moves him, he will speak his mind. In 2015, during the run-up to the marriage equality referendum, he wrote an open letter to The Irish Times urging a yes vote. This action was inspired by his son, Toby, who had come out as gay a year or so earlier.
“It was a profound joy to do it. Because I’d been given this accidental insight, this gift of seeing something, the actual thing itself, not all the claptrap or the pious remarks. To see your shining, radiant son upset and then discovering why – well, you just instinctively mobilise yourself in some way,” Barry says. (He also chides himself for using the verb “mobilise” for a second time in our conversation.) “Just to be able to say something, it was joyful.”
His son’s experiences also provided the spur to write Days Without End. The novel follows Thomas McNulty, an Irish emigrant to 1850s America, who fights in the Indian wars and the civil war alongside the love of his life, fellow US Cavalry trooper John Cole. Told in a vivid vernacular style, its savagery laced with compassion and humanity (“they unthinkingly adore each other”), the book marked a break from his previous work, right down to the writing process.
“I was in a different state of mind,” he recalls. “I did all sorts of odd things. For instance, I don’t drink, but I would have a few glasses of wine in the evening when writing that book, because I needed to calm down.
“I really did feel when I delivered it that Christmas that it couldn’t be any good, because it didn’t seem to be written in any English I recognised. Also I thought it had been too exciting to write, so I thought I’d have to write a new book in January. So anything that happened then was in the realm of astonishing, as if I was 22 again and it was my first book.”
But that the young Barry could have made such a splash with his debut novel. Starting with his 1982 novel Macker’s Garden, he wrote fiction, poetry and plays with vigorous self-belief but only limited success for a decade. “There’s a part of me when I was young that would happily have poisoned the soup of every other writer, just to get them out of the way,” he says with a wry smile. He was, he recalls, “extravagantly neurotic” in those early days, freshly graduated from Trinity and living in a small flat in Leeson Street. But he knew he had found his calling.
“It was pretty chaotic actually. I didn’t even know at the time what neurosis was, so I didn’t realise I was odd. But Yeats said, didn’t he, that I am a fool everywhere except at my desk. That sort of feeling of doing the right thing, in some way. And that’s been a constant through 40 years.”
It will be very good for me, just from a human point of view, because it will be pushing me out, stirring me up
Another constant has been Barry’s habit of mining his colourful family history for stories. The Steward of Christendom, the 1995 play that made his name internationally, was loosely based on the life of his maternal great-grandfather, a chief superintendant in the Dublin Metropolitan Police, while 2014’s The Temporary Gentleman drew on his maternal grandfather’s experience as a British soldier. Why has he been so drawn to his family’s past?
“Because it was denied me in a way,” he says. “Because I grew up with people, particularly my father, who weren’t interested in history or the sense of the end of history. I mean it was understandable because they’d been through all these wars, even vicariously, in the 20th century, starting with 1916, which his father, my grandfather, had been in. But to me it mattered because there were other things thrown in my way as well, like my other grandfather being in the British army. So there were complications that needed to be worked out.”
In doing so, Barry also mapped out Ireland’s hidden history. His 2005 novel A Long Long Way drew attention to the tens of thousands of Irishmen who had fought for Britain in the first World War. The Secret Scripture, meanwhile, was inspired by a distant relative who had been confined in a mental hospital, and threw light on women who similarly incarcerated for falling foul of the mores of Catholic Ireland.
Creative turning point
Along the way, his trajectory as a writer has changed. Once best known as a playwright, he now devotes most of his creative efforts towards fiction. “That’s been very odd, it’s just the way it went.” If there was a turning point, he feels it was Hinterland, his 2002 drama about the dysfunctional family of a politician closely resembling Charles Haughey. “Hinterland was very unpopular and quite reviled,” he recalls. “But the real problem for me was that it wasn’t really from that old source of chaotic happiness.”
If he is happier now, it is because writing has helped him. “Basically, I didn’t know how f**ked up I was. As Larkin said, 'they f**k you up, your mum and dad'. That is true, everyone has to endure that. Writing wasn’t therapeutic, but it was somehow sobering in a way. It was so hard to do and at times so incredibly exciting that it just allowed me, by a miracle, to be some sort of decent father and husband.”
Having explored the past for most of his career, Barry is now intrigued by the future. Days Without End is to be adapted into a film. He hopes the project will turn out better than Jim Sheridan’s 2016 screen version of The Secret Scripture, which he was dissatisfied with. “That film had a horrible moment where Johnny Ferguson, the screenwriter, died. Everything else after that was trying to recover from that. So it wasn’t blessed.”
More personally, he has been gratified by the awards the book has received, almost despite himself. “Are prizes important, do they matter? Well, you do experience them in a certain way. It’s childish, but you know the way psychiatrists say, ‘reconnect with your inner child’? It’s like that, but I would put a high price on that.”
Perhaps most crucially from a creative perspective, the book marked a break of sorts from his fictional family explorations, like “waving goodbye to the subsistence farm and heading off west”.
“My grandfather once said that his great-uncle had been in the Indian Wars, but that was all he said. So the book is entirely invented. Which is good for a novelist.”
In a similar spirit, he is hoping that his new role as laureate will open up new frontiers.
“It will be very good for me, just from a human point of view, because it will be pushing me out, stirring me up. And I think you need to do that, especially as you get older.”
- Sebastian Barry will be appearing as Fiction Laureate in the Gorey, Wicklow Town & Ennis Book Club festival. Details from artscouncil.ie/laureate