Sebastian Barry: ‘When you get past 60, you do feel a licence to write fearlessly’ | Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry: ‘When you get past 60, you do feel a licence to write fearlessly’ | Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry, 68, is the author of 11 novels and 15 plays. Five of his books have been long- or shortlisted for the Booker prize, and his novels have won numerous awards, including the Costa book of the year (twice) and the Walter Scott prize for historical fiction. He was laureate for Irish fiction from 2018 to 2021. His latest novel, Old God’s Time, is about a retired policeman, Tom Kettle, and his struggles with the legacy of institutional child abuse in Ireland. It has been described as “a tour de force of transcendent power and complexity”. Barry was born in Dublin and lives in a converted rectory in the mountains of County Wicklow, Ireland.

Was it good to be back in Ireland with Old God’s Time? Did it feel like coming home?
I was in dread of coming home. I had spent two books [Days Without End and A Thousand Moons] in America, quite joyously… a kind of vast holiday. So, yes, it was coming home, but I was a bit… It’s not that I’ve been avoiding the whole strange cosmos of what we have done to children in this country, but I was certainly unable to write this book… until I did. When you get past 60, you do feel a sort of licence finally to write fearlessly about something that essentially is full of fear.

The book contains some upsetting scenes. Do you have to be in a certain frame of mind to write those?
You do. I had reached that frame of mind. It’s not so much about the fact that there was child abuse in Ireland. It’s, what do you do afterwards? How do you live? Because ultimate despair leads to a desire to leave the world. And I feared, as a person who has struggled with depression from time to time, I didn’t want to do anything that was going to dismay me so much that I was going to be sweltering around in my depressive boots, trying to get through the mud.

Despite the very different subject matters, this is your third novel in a row that becomes a bit of a page-turner. Where did that come from?
It’s a pardon for being a bit older. You think, OK, I’m 68, I have hopefully 20 years. But which bit of that is going to be me just totally crocked, [and] how many years do you have [for] work? And to be alarmed that way is good for your work because you become less self-conscious. But the compulsive element of a book can’t be put in… I love [that you call it a] page-turner, because that makes me feel it’s its own self-generating artefact, that I’ve managed to faithfully take it from the air through the medium of my stupefied brain.

Do you prefer writing novels to plays these days?
The last play was On Blueberry Hill, and it got to the West End, which I’d never been to before. I was so excited! Suddenly, Graham Norton wants to talk to you. I found it pretty ravishing, to be honest. But then three days later, they closed the UK [for Covid lockdown] and that was that. What I’m trying to say is that I’ve found theatre very difficult, and I’ve come a cropper a couple of times. [But] I don’t know if I’ve completely given up on it.

You’re a great reader of your own work. Are you a frustrated performer?
Well, that is my performance! I’m not frustrated any more. I actually love reading to an audience. I will work really hard. I know my song well before I start singing, as Dylan said. I even sing any bits of songs that are connected to a book. And the bar is low, as you may have noticed, for writers performing. If you make the slightest effort, everyone thinks that’s grand.

In one of your lectures as laureate for Irish fiction, you talked about the thrill of getting a fan letter from Harold Pinter. Has anything matched that since?
Yes. Out of the blue, in [2018] in the New York Review of Books there appeared this long article [about Barry’s work] by Robert Gottlieb, who was the centre of American literature. I mean, he renamed Catch-18 to Catch-22. That is sublime editorial intervention. And we never met, but we emailed long emails. And when I finished Old God’s Time I just thought, fuck it, and I sent [the novel] to him in an email. And he had this thing: always get back to a writer within three days, because the writer’s going to be dying. So a few days later came this email of total magic about the book. And it just felt like travel insurance for the experience of [publishing] the book.

What explains the renaissance and success in Irish writing recently?
It’s a golden age of writing and reading. There are devoted, vocational readers, and that’s very inspirational. That’s generated an atmosphere where writers feel they’re going to be able to get their fish and chips out of this, because there is a receptive thing. You’re sitting there partly going “Jeez, you’re such a good writer, I hate you. Can I poison your soup quietly?” That’s part of it. But the other part is, “Ah! This is what it’s for”. Claire [Kilroy]’s book [Soldier Sailor] just made me happy and grateful that I existed. Or Joseph O’Connor’s book about the actors [Shadowplay]. Then you have this occurrence of genius, [such as] Claire-Louise Bennett.

Did you read growing up?
I couldn’t read until I was eight. My sister was reading from the age of four, which was incredibly irritating. My father had a travelling bookcase, and the spines of the Penguin books were on it, row after row after row. I didn’t know what they were, but I knew they were something important. When I finally got a hook on it, I would go with my pocket money and buy a Puffin book every week or two.

Where do you write?
I work here, in the old study of the rector. I have a stove in the corner, I have my grandfather’s notebooks and some of his paintings. I have my wife’s theatre photograph when she was starting out, so beautiful I try not to look at it. I have a curtain which for some reason has pineapples on it. And I have the poster for Boss Grady’s Boys, which was the first play that did that miraculous thing – it paid the rent. We didn’t have to hide under the bed any more when the landlord came.

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