Writer’s Block With Sebastian Barry

Ahead of his appearance at DALKEY BOOK FESTIVAL, we get an insight into SEBASTIAN BARRY‘s creative space, home life and his insatiable passion for drama and history …

Photograph by Eoin Rafferty
Photograph by Eoin Rafferty

Literary master Sebastian Barry has contributed great works to the worlds of poetry, prose and theatre. His use of romantic language, his unique lyrical flow and an insatiable passion for history have made Sebastian one of Ireland’s most valuable wordsmiths.

As a novelist, the Dubliner has published nine books to date, the bulk of which are global bestsellers. Some of his most recognized titles are A Long Long Way (2005), The Secret Scripture (2008), On Canaan’s Side (2011) and The Temporary Gentleman (2014). Barry’s work has accumulated a stack of prestigious awards; winning the Costa Book of the Year award twice – making him the first author ever to do so. He has also been twice short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. His work recently reached Hollywood with Jim Sheridan’s production of The Secret Scripture, starring Rooney Mara and Jack Reynor.

Sebastian’s latest title, the sensational Days Without End, was undoubtedly one of the great Irish novels of 2016. The Costa judges for his victory last year called the chart-topper ‘miraculous’ and discussions are already taking place for another big screen adaptation. Sebastian has returned to the theatre with his latest play, On Blueberry Hill, which will be performed as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival this September.  

Sebastian Barry lives in County Wicklow with his wife Alison and their three children.

Days Without End (€12.50) is published by Faber & Faber and available from all good bookshops. Sebastian Barry opens this year’s Dalkey Book Festival on Thursday June 15 at 6pm with an already sold-out appearance. www.dalkeybookfestival.org.

On home

We live near Tinahely, but higher into the mountains. There is nothing here only rooks, sheep, rabbits, and our dogs looking suspiciously at everything. We’ve been here for sixteen years and initially came so that the children could have a country childhood. In Tinahely the community and surrounding farms are just enough to support a butcher, a small supermarket, a post office, an epic vegetable shop, and a few other things – but no dry cleaners for instance. We used to have a smoothie shop but she closed. Tragic day. Near us we have been privileged to be part of the lives of some of our neighbours. It is an interesting district historically, with a rare 50/50 demographic of Catholic and Protestant. There was a violent history but also a sort of dignified melding now. Apart from the humans is the great clock of the year, a true shepherd’s calendar, the sequence of snowdrops, daffodils, bluebells, the dressing and undressing of the huge beech trees, the noisy, cantankerous but also fiercely devoted family life of our rooks. The wagtails knock the moss off the roofs, the finches spy out their advantage, and the robin is always at my side in the garden, waiting for his reward. We have had a number of dogs here, some of them now pushing up the daisies in the quiet orchard. We have weathered all the usual family dramas here and are grateful to be in Wicklow. But there is also Dublin just an hour away – with the mighty Trocadero, and Chez Max, where I can get a hint of my youthful days in Paris.

On creating

I always work at home – the idea of working out in the open not possible for me. It is secretive, silent, away, working. My room is one of the smallest in the house, where vanished rectors used I imagine to write their Sunday sermons, and perhaps curse the isolation and sparseness of their parish. I write my own ‘secret scriptures’ here and have produced I think five novels here and some plays. It is a square little room but for one angled wall where the stove is. I have an armchair for bewildered moments, of which there are many, and I write on the same desk that my wife and I carried from Francis Street thirty years ago, when we lived in Portobello. I have a chair that was sold to me in Portobello as ‘genuine georgeen’. My current research books line the back of the desk, and my children at various ages are irregularly on the wall in front of me. I have two bottles of Parker ink, one bought forty years ago, the other twenty-five. They seem eternal. I have some things given me over the years, including a Native American container with a bear and its cub in it, standing on pollen. This has been essential to me. I have a figurine of a Boer War soldier to keep guard over my labours, some water-colours of my grandfather, and a photograph of New York that Donal McCann gave me before he died. The ghosts and the living conspire to help me. It is a good place to work.

On bookshops

Sometimes I am obliged to do a book tour in America and I am always happy towards the end of the tour to reach Mrs Dalloway’s bookshop, in Berkeley, California. The owner is of a very respectable age and she genuinely has rested her faith in books. There is something reassuring about that. For research I use alibris.co.uk, and it is a lovely feeling to know one can reach into all the second-hand bookshops of the earth to get that impossible-to-find item. A history of transport in the American west, for instance. I imagine owners sometimes exclaiming, ‘Good God, we finally sold that damn book, who would have thought?’ Our Mecca of a bookshop though no longer exists really. It was Fred Hanna’s in Nassau Street, when Fred was in his heyday. When I did a reading there for The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, he got it done up in a special cover. What a gent. The thing was, he had all the Irish books and writers in a sort of happy ghetto at the back of the shop. All the English and American books were in the main part of the shop. It was very inspiring somehow as a young writer to look at the Irish section and wonder could you ever add to it in some way, sometime.

On escape

The place that makes my heart beat faster with the pulse of a native is the island of Paros in the Aegean. There is a small cove there with a restaurant whose name I cannot share with you where we as a family have had joyful, easy days. I lived for a year on Paros when I was twenty-five, thanks to some monetary intervention by my father. I was inoculated by the pale heat of the island, the peace of village life. I was arrested once for driving my moped through the village during siesta. Alas, you can drive a Hummer through now if you wished. But the sun inching closer to the white houses, the dry wheat in the dry fields, the confusions of youth, still constitute a sort of harbour of memory. Otherwise I have tried to restore an old cottage in North Mayo, which happens to hold some of the most agreeable people in Ireland. Michael Davit, to my mind the greatest hero in Irish history, was born nearby. His mother was a Kielty, and I know the present Kieltys, and they are such high-hearted people. In the last few years I bought an American field mower and cleared the brambles off my four acres, and I restored the old green road that runs between the one-acre field and the little hill called Winnie’s Rock, that has four sorts of heather, twenty kinds of grass, and the marks of twenty generations of children playing across it. I like to walk that old road, a useless thing running nowhere over unwanted old ground, and think of the conversations of the people as they came up on their carts and donkeys, never imagining maybe that it would all be swept away by some careless modernity. The most evil creature in the countryside is the bulldozer.

On drama

The theatre reaches back not only to the oldest times of human persons but also perhaps to persons not quite human – Homo erectus, Australopithecus, and so on. It is the place we throw into darkness and then shine a light on certain selected things, the passing of a human event. But it is the world of dreams, of bare truth, of the curious magic that resides in us beyond the reach of the skeptic. It is the better part of religion, maybe the only verifiable part. So the audience come to complete the play. What happens in the theatre when it actually functions as it should is luckily almost not part of words. It is asking us to remember our most curious natures. Not to invest fully in the heavy nonsense of economists and politicians, who would turn our world into a quantifiable business or corporation.

On history

Actually, terrifying though it would be, I would like to go back to the time of the Irish famine and really see what was happening and why. Although photography was possible, and a favourite past-time in the Big Houses, not one photograph exists as far as I know of the actual famine. We have eviction photographs which are graphic enough, and many drawings of the period. But not one face looks out at us as a witness. I would like to go back and try to understand why. When a family was put out on the road, for instance, usually the doors of other cabins were closed fast, because the occupants feared they would be next if they sympathised. Indian meal coming from America as aid was subjected, under the rules of free trade and an open market, to speculation, and often when it arrived in Cobh, the ‘commodity’ was already priced out of the reach of the hungry. People sometimes ask why the poor didn’t eat fish – the truth is, fishermen sold their nets and boats to survive, because the catches would pile up in the harbours, and no one with a penny to buy, and of course no ice or transport to preserve it. Money and trade was everything, far more important than the lives of human creatures. I would like to see all that, try to make sense of it, because it remains the great darkness at the heart of Irish history, and not even the light of theatre to explain it.


Originally published – October 27 2016

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