• From the Observer: Meet the Author: Kevin Barry

    Meet the Author

    Kevin Barry

    Kevin Barry is the author of the novel City of Bohane, which won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and two short story collections. His excellent new novel, Beatlebone, has been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize, and is a brilliant imagining of John Lennon’s fraught journey to an island he owns in Ireland, his battles with creative block, 'primal scream therapy', and his new album, the eponymous Beatlebone.

    John Lennon is a fascinating character in Beatlebone - why did you write about him?

    My initial spark of inspiration is always place. As a writer I’m tuning into what feelings I get from places. I go cycling around where I live in County Sligo, and when I passed Clew Bay I remembered that John Lennon owned one of those islands. When I was growing up in west Ireland in the ‘70s it was the end of the hippie trail - there were communes everywhere. John had a role in this radical history of western Ireland.

    I had a vague idea for this novel: John is looking for his island and can’t find it. Once I had the voice it took life. I gave John a sidekick, Cornelius the driver, who became the book’s engine. I realised then that I was writing an old-fashioned novel; Don Quixote - John is on a quest and tilting at windmills, and they’re looking at life’s questions.

    It’s “old-fashioned” but also daringly inventive…

    That’s the perimeter of the story but I want to go fucking nuts within my stories - I want to go wild as I can. For me it’s not about maintaining control on the page - it’s about losing control, and letting it go wild, and sometimes uncomfortable for people. When I was in my 20s I'd find embarrassing bits and recoil in horror - now I’m interested in those bits that make me squirm.

    “It’s about going to the dark places and using what you find there”, says John - is that what you do in your writing?

    For sure. Beatlebone is a portrait of an artist, to use the Joycean term. It's about how you make something creatively - whether it’s a record or novel. There’s that great quotation “happiness writes white” - it doesn’t show up on the page; you have to go into your own dark materials and use that as an activating force. I think so much of literature, and music, comes out of anxiety. Lennon was a very anxious person, as he’s portrayed in the book. I think many artists operate from this pit of worry and fretfulness. I certainly do. I’m a nervous maniac.

    What was your research process?

    I watched clips from interviews with John Lennon. I re-listened to the music - I’ve always loved The White Album (a favourite is “I’m So Tired”, as a fellow insomniac) and his early solo records like Plastic Ono Band, his ‘primal scream’ album. I had to do a bit of screaming for the book. When I got to John’s island, I could scream. Also, I lived in Liverpool for two years which gave me confidence to try writing this. An influential book was Anthony Burgess’s Little Wilson and Big God. I’m interested in what happens when Irish traits move into northern cities, and in what made the cradle for some of the century’s greatest pop culture.

    But my books are never quite realism: often they’ll be presented so on the surface - I’ll pull the reader in, then I’m interested in bringing them to the very edge of believability.

    Do you identify with an Irish writing tradition and why do you think so much good literature comes out of Ireland?

    I love the radical streak - Beckett and Joyce and Flann O’Brien were happy to go nuts on the page and be inventive. I also love Beckett’s letters because no matter how bleak you’re feeling, Sam is always feeling worse.

    There’s so much writing from this small, wet black rock at the edge of the Atlantic. I don’t think the fact of 300 days of rain is unconnected - it’s the ideal conditions for a nation of storytellers. You’d have to make stuff up or you’d go fucking nuts.

    Was storytelling part of your childhood?

    I remember in the 70s when I was a kid there were electricity strikes and the telly would be gone so everybody would be around candlelight, yarn-spinning. We’re good at talk - I come from Limerick city which is very fast babble, which lends itself to skittish surreal humour. But there are also all these silences; often in what is not said is where you find your fiction.

    Time is a powerful theme in much of your work…

    Both of my novels are in some ways about not being able to step out of the shadows of the past and being drawn back to it. They have more in common then would first appear. In Beatlebone, I was interested in exploring primal scream therapy as it’s about the fundamental belief that we’re all wounded, and about re-experiencing childhood pain. And I’m returning to the City of Bohane - writing a sequel to it - on the Winter Solstice, and shall come back on the Summer Solstice.

    The funny thing is: the further you move from yourself, you’re always stepping back into the past. The older you get, you get this deepening sense of freight under you and that’s the past. And all the fundamental things in our life come out of that period in our late teens/early 20s - that’s where creative influences come from.

    What were your creative influences?

    I was so obsessed with records and books and films at that age. I was into Pixies records, and it was my psychedelic period in terms of acid house raves - I’d be at parties all night, but always at about 7 or 8 in the morning, someone would sneak on a Beatles record. I had the classic poetry and gothic phases. I was a ginger goth - imagine the pain. I would hang around graveyards in Limerick listening to Morrissey or Nick Cave, and writing poetry.

    Do you have a writing routine?

    I’m much more disciplined now. I go to my writing shed 7 days a week. Fiction comes from a subconscious level. In my 20s I didn't know there was a part of the brain I wasn't using - the subconscious. I have to write first thing in the morning while “still a little puddle in dream melt”, to use Don DeLillo’s phrase - before you’re fully awake you’re not afraid to embarrass yourself; you just get it on the page and fuck it. And crucially - the wifi doesn’t reach my shed.

    Do you think the internet is impacting novels?

    I know for sure it affects the way I write - in very short paragraphs. The way we process stories is different. But we do need narrative because our lives are messy and fucked up most of the time. It’s a fundamental human need - we need stories to give shape to our lives.

    And people still love to hear - the one thing that will stop us and slow us down is the human voice. I often write to be heard, to be read aloud, which has led to me writing for actors and writing short films.

    You're on a roll with prizes. How does it feel to be shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize?

    I really like the Goldsmiths as it’s about innovation - and the novel has to be novel and constantly reinvent itself.

    Beatlebone by Kevin Barry is published by Canongate priced £12.99

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