Author Kevin Barry on Writing Short Stories and Caring Less
Irish author Kevin Barry has been on a roll. His debut novel, City of Bohane, won the 2013 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Now, Dark Lies the Island, Barry's second collection of short stories, has solidified his reputation as an inventive and darkly hilarious prose stylist.
Barry is currently stationed with his wife in Montreal, finishing a second novel and working on two screenplays—one of which is an adaptation of City of Bohane, an eminently filmable steampunk gangster saga. He will be in D.C. for the first time Wednesday evening to read from both books at the Warehouse Theater. Arts Desk recently spoke with Barry about his evolving approach to writing and his career plans.
Washington City Paper: When I read your books, I get the sense that you have a lot of fun writing them.
Kevin Barry: Yes, but it took me quite a long while to recognize that I should be having fun when I write. When I started out writing in my 20s, and for a long while after that, it looked like the classic movie biopic of the writer's life. I was pacing up and down, pulling out my hair, and balling up paper and throwing it at the wastepaper basket. But then I said to myself, "Hang on, maybe if I'm not having fun at my end of the process, the misfortunate reader may not be having fun at the other end." Now I manage to have fun most of the time. I wouldn't say every day is a party, but I try to get a vivaciousness on the page if I can. It can take a lot of slow days to do that.
WCP: You have been writing in various capacities since your 20s. When did this attitude change happen?
KB: I worked in my early and mid-20s as a freelance journalist. For years I was doing arts stuff and books stuff and I was fine with that, but there was a part of my brain that I wasn't using. I was quite narrow in my influences back then. I was reading Saul Bellow and Philip Roth and I wanted to be the next great Jewish American writer. As a ginger-haired child in the West of Ireland, that wouldn't have worked out very well. I remember actually physically catching myself one day, looking down at the page, and stopping in mid-sentence. I realized I was writing literature with a capital "L". It was all these wonderful sentences, multi-claused, going on for who knows how many words across the page... "the train moved across the black midland plain"... I remember just thinking, "Who the hell is this guy? This isn't me at all." I realized that you have to care less, in a funny way, when you're writing fiction, and just let the stories speak for themselves.
WCP: You still do write some terrific sentences. How many revisions do you typically go through?
KB: It really varies from story to story. Some of my favorites have been written inside a week. But there are others that hang around for years before they feel right. You can be very dumb about your own work. You can be so close to it that you can't see what's stopping it. A story in my first book went through 45 or 46 drafts. It ended up being a very short six- or seven-page story, but for a long while, it had 30 pages. It was a story about hill walkers in a love triangle in Ireland. There was about 5,000 words of description of the Wicklow Mountains, which were the most magnificent descriptions of the Wicklow Mountains ever written, but they were killing the story on the page. It wasn't until I showed a friend of mine in Belfast—and I very rarely show work in progress—and he said, "The characters are great and everything, but there is quite a lot about the hills."
But some of my favorites are written in a day or two. "The Ford of Killary" [from Dark Lies the Island] I wrote in three or four days—it was all there. They are weird mysterious things, short stories. I start a lot of them, and not that many work out. But in some way it is the fact they are difficult which makes them attractive.
WCP: It seems like short stories are enjoying a bit of a renaissance lately.
KB: Yes, it is good to see that short stories have crawled out of their little cave and come blinking back into the sunlight. For a long while they were out of fashion. If you arrived into a publisher's office with a collection of short stories, it was like dragging a dead dog in. I don't know why they are popular now; maybe because there are so many pressures on our time, and there is so much good stuff out there in so many different forms, people are inclined read shorter.
WCP: I have read that you went a bit crazy writing Bohane. What specifically did that look like?
KB: The main physical effect was I wasn't sleeping much. I found it very hard to switch off at the end of the day; I was kind of wrecked and bug-eyed by the end of it. But that initial 33 months gave me the world of the book, and I was able to spend a much more relaxed eight months redrafting and cutting. I remember reading a letter written to a young John Cheever by some old critic who said, "If you're inclined naturally to write short stories and want to write a novel, the best way to do it is to write it really fast. Go for broke. Get your world down quickly and work at it from there."
WCP: Bohane is set in the future, but it seems like a bit of an out-of-time, steampunky kind of place. Do you consider the book a kind of dystopic vision of things to come?
KB: One of the happy things about City of Bohane is that I started getting invited to sci-fi conventions. All the guys at the sci-fi conventions—and it is all guys—would say, "I really liked this book, but how did the world get to be this way?" And I have no idea. I think it is just mean to be an alternative universe. I think steampunk is a pretty accurate description. Bohane was very influenced by graphic novels.
WCP: Which ones?
KB: I grew up with a huge love of all comics and graphic novels. My really big thing as a teenager was the Hernandez Brothers' Love and Rockets series. I love that L.A. punk stuff and the weird Mexican stories. They were a big influence on City of Bohane. But I was also influenced by the stacks of DVDs I was watching while I wrote it. I recently rewatched Deadwood and was amazed by how much I had stolen. There is so much amazing stuff going on in TV drama these days, it is only natural that writers are going to take a peek.
WCP: Are you excited to be working on a City of Bohane movie?
KB: Yes. So far I have written two drafts of the screenplay for a really good Irish company called Parallel Productions. The script process has been straightforward—the book was so influenced by television and movies that it lifted easily off the page. It is also the kind of story that, 10 or 15 years ago, you would have needed $50 million to make. But now, with CGI, it becomes much more economical to make films like this.
WCP: Did you always want to do the narration on the City of Bohane audiobook?
KB: I didn't plan on it, actually, but it was a very interesting thing to do. I recorded it two years after I had written the book, and you learn a lot about your work when you read it aloud. It took eight hours and 43 minutes, I think, over the course of a few days recording.
When you read, you see what you did well and what you could have done better. My big discovery in reading Bohane was that there were a couple of characters who weren't in it enough. There were some ladies in Bohane—Jenni Ching and a lady called Girly Hartnett, who is an 89-year-old weapon who still runs the city from her bed. Whenever those two came in, I found myself sitting up a little straighter and enjoying reading more. It is a really good thing for a writer to read work aloud; I act out my stories whenever I revise them. Your ear will get the false notes of your work much faster than your eye will catch them on the page.
WCP: In both Bohane and Dark Lies the Island, you do a great job of writing about down-and-out characters with a great, redeeming sense of vitality. What inspires this juxtaposition?
KB: I think of the [Dark Lies the Island] story "White Hitachi" when you say that. It is the story of two brothers who are driving around the northwest of Ireland in a van, and they are in all sorts of bother. But it is a funny story with a lot of energy. I love the Nabokov description of what good literature should be: "laughter in the dark." My stories, more often than not, are comedies—very dark, bleak, black comedies, but comedies all the same. I'm always very interested in Irish funerals. When you are standing outside the removal home, there is always giggling and joke telling right outside. It’s how we get true.
WCP: In recent years, your work has won prizes and enjoyed near-universal critical praise. Does that recognition feel vindicating, or does it ramp up the pressure to produce?
KB: I think there is pressure if you don't win any prizes! The recognition has been fantastic. I have been very fortunate to win some awards and get good reviews over the past few years. It is always difficult for writers to get established and break through, and it gets harder all the time because there is so much good stuff out there. But I firmly believe that if you can limit your attention to your desk, without ever worrying about how your work will be received, there rest will take care of itself. I am able to do that, I think, most of the time. And I have been able to work at writing without having to do anything else; that, to me, is a the real definition of success for a writer.
WCP: What is the next step for you? I read you are writing a screenplay about horse racing?
KB: Yes, I am working on that and I am actually near the finishing point of another novel. I am superstitious, so I am not saying anything about [the new novel] until it gets born. I have been working on it on and off for about two and a half years now and hope to finish it over the course of this winter. And there are always short stories niggling at me. Every once in a while I'll leave what I'm supposed to be working on and have a fling with a short story. I've actually been up to that the past few days.
Kevin Barry reads at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Warehouse Theater. Free.