DANEET STEFFENS: One of the stories in That Old Country Music, “Extremadura (Until Night Falls),” is set in Spain, as was Night Boat to Tangier. Does that country have a particular pull for you?
KEVIN BARRY: Yes, Extremadura is a strange province in Spain, famous for witches — I’m generally drawn in these kinds of directions. And I’ve been going to Spain since way before I was published. In my journalism days, in January-February time, I would escape to Spain for as long as I could afford it, and I would be trying to write fiction. So I think about it as a place of literary discovery for me. It’s my favorite country after Ireland.
Has your 20 years of journalism experience had an impact on your fiction?
Well, I was a very old-fashioned thing, a cub reporter, doing my apprenticeship on a local newspaper in Limerick city where I grew up. That doesn’t exist anymore — it feels like something out of a Damon Runyon book now, a cub reporter. But what I did get from that time, when I was reporting on court meetings and city-council meetings and all that stuff, I got great research for my first novel, City of Bohane, which is all about how a small city runs. And I think something very useful that journalism does for you as a fiction writer is it takes a lot of the preciousness out of writing: you know that no matter what condition you’re in or how little sleep you’ve had, you can always put your butt on the chair and turn out copy.
I was wondering about the listening element of journalism as well, whether that’s proved to be a boon in terms of the way you capture people speaking to each other.
Maybe so. I’m an Olympic-standard eavesdropper. I also seem to have kind of a trusting face because people come to me all the time on trains and planes and boats and start unloading the craziest most glorious stuff that you could never make up. What I do a lot as well is I look at the way people are speaking. Watching them as they speak is very interesting because often, in fiction, dialogue on the page looks like two people taking turns, but it’s never like that in life: in life there’s always a talker and a listener. And in writing fiction that’s set in Ireland — as most of mine is — we’re talkers. We love the sound of our voices but we give little away, and the meaning of an Irish conversation can take a great many years to work its way out. I think there’s so much drama buried just underneath the surface of everyday speech. And it’s in what’s not being said, that’s where you’ll find the story.
You’ve mentioned the challenge of getting inside John Lennon’s head in Beatlebone. This collection includes “Roethke in the Bughouse,” about American poet Theodore Roethke. Was it just as challenging to get inside Roethke’s head?
Weirdly, I finished Beatlebone on a Monday and I said to myself, “That’s it. Never again am I going to put a real person into a book — it’s too difficult.” The following Friday, I started to write “Roethke in the Bughouse.” I’d come across that history in The Kick, a memoir by Irish poet Richard Murphy. He’d brought Roethke to this island off the Galway coast; Roethke had a crack-up and caused so much havoc that he was committed to the Ballinasloe hospital in Galway. I took it from there. It’s possibly my favorite story in the collection because it’s quite rare that stories work out to the extent that you hope: you always have huge ambition for them when you begin, thinking, “This is the one,” and they tend to fall a little short of that. But I felt with this one that I got a language for Roethke that seemed true to him.
The stories in That Old Country Music were written over a period of eight years. If you consider the earliest, “Ox Mountain Death Song,” about a cop tracking a small-time criminal, and “Saint Catherine of the Fields,” written in February 2020, about storytelling, heartbreak, betrayal, and a tracker of songs, do you see changes in your approach as a writer?
When I look at “Ox Mountain Death Song,” I was more involved with seeing what might happen when you let genres collide: it’s almost like a little Western, but it goes for it on the language front. I think I’ve got a little bit quieter and calmer as I’ve aged, but that was something I did early on, like with City of Bohane: whenever I would write a lyric passage I would kind of subvert it with a follow-up sentence that would be barbing it or taking the piss out of it in some way; now I’m more prepared to just go with the lyric approach and see where it might bring me. And “St. Catherine of the Fields,” well … clearly everyone in my stories is heartbroken. But this one was inspired by a couple of things, and I was happy with the way the two elements of it came together. There’s a great film from a couple of years ago called Cold War by director Paweł Pawlikowski, and it uses the narrative trick of having young people who collect folk songs in Poland and brings a love story out of that. I just couldn’t help being a magpie when I saw that lovely structure. There’s also a great story by John Berger set in the French Alps where he lived for many years, and it’s about a very innocent peasant farmer who gets taken in by a city woman in a way that’s quite similar to what happens in my story. It was a happy experience for me as a story because it wrote itself quite quickly, inside a week or so, and those are always my favorites.
“Roma Kid” highlights inequities in our social systems, but it’s also about tolerance and kindness and “the quiet efficiencies of love.” Among some of the other stories, this one feels like a beacon of hope.
The happiest thing that can happen with a story, really, is if it turns around and surprises you as it’s going on. This one was inspired by what I saw on the Dublin to Sligo train one day, like the one she takes in the story: I saw a Roma kid sitting on the floor in between carriages and the image stuck with me, and I wondered would I be bold enough to try and put her in a story. It seemed to me that she was heading toward darkness and unhappy circumstance, but it almost becomes a fairy story once she gets into the woods and the strange elfin man appears. It was quite a difficult story because it’s the sort that could tiptoe very easily into sentimentality, but I stayed on the right side of it, I think. Often what I’m trying to do with almost anything I write is the stories will look for the first couple of pages like realism, really straight realism, but they’ll tiptoe a little bit away from that and go out toward the very edge of believability, which is a difficult place to operate as writer. But if it’s hard, you can get rewards out of it, if it goes well, you know?
Most of these stories are set where you live, in the northwest of Ireland, as though that landscape been a great inspiration.
Yes, I guess your stories follow you around in the world a bit, and I’ve lived for 13 years now in County Sligo. I feel like this has been quite lucky terrain for me, that I’ve responded to it, and I can kind of hear it. It’s a landscape that, at this time of the year, can seem to be entirely asleep, but you just have to kind of prod it and poke it and make it come to life. I do think a fundamental thing for me as a writer is that places have feelings, that places give off their own melancholy or joy or strange feelings that linger in them. It could be a particular street corner or a field, but almost all of my stories will begin with a place, some place that I’ve been passing through, and it just makes me want to set a story there. So much of my life seems to be as a kind of location scout for my stories — it’s certainly useful to get out of the house, away from my comfortable stove. I mean, in that case I’d just be writing the same story over and over again.
We’re grappling with Brexit, threats to democracy, and a global pandemic: is literature going to save us?
It might save me. That’s my only possible response to that. I’ve found it, during this second COVID lockdown, a great reprieve to be able to go to my desk and switch off all the white noise that’s going on in the world at the moment, to just go and try to think about the next sentence. At such a tumultuous period like what we’re going through now, it can feel almost irrelevant to be going out to your shed in County Sligo and writing your funny, sorrowful story about heartbroken people up in the hills. But then you have to remind yourself, “This is what I’m for, I’m not good at anything else.” And you just have to keep going.
I do think it’s all going to have a dramatic effect on much of the work that comes out over the next few years: even if books and stories and films aren’t directly about COVID, they’ll have been created at this time when so many of our certainties have been pulled away from us. The illusion that we’re in any kind of control of our lives has been rudely removed from us. I imagine that in the immediate aftermath, when we all come out the other side of it and there are vaccines and all of that, there’s going to be a very joyous period, but also a new anxiety, I think, underlying all of us, really, about what’s the next crazy thing coming down the line. I do think any novels directly written about this period, the good ones, won’t be around for 10 or 12 or 15 years — it always takes time for stuff to filter properly. It always takes time and perspective.
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.