Sebastian Barry talks to Northern Soul ahead of the Manchester Literature Festival
If you were asked what you thought about the state of the Irish novel, would you have an answer? Perhaps not, but this and other questions will be answered at one of the Manchester Literature Festival’s events this month.
In an event billed as a meeting of two of Ireland’s most accomplished masters, Sebastian Barry and Colm Tóibín will be discussing their novels and sharing thoughts on their success and that of their contemporaries. Ahead of this event, Northern Soul talked to Barry to hear a little of what the discussion will mean to him, and how literature festivals can be a hearty spoonful of medicine to the souls of both the audience and the writers themselves.
It turns out that the born and bred Irishman has prior connections with Manchester. He has given readings at Manchester University and one of his plays, Prayers of Sherkin, dealt with part of his family who left the city in the 19th century to set up a religious community on an island off the coast of Cork. So the city has been much in his mind for some time. “I think that our own selves are composed of the tiny stories that we gather to ourselves and are usually connected to places.”
Barry recounts a story from his teenage years when he visited Manchester. He remembers the skyline composed of the great industrial chimneys, recalls that the city seemed very much rooted in the 19th century at the time. He compares the rapid modernisation of the city to his birthplace of Dublin, which “remained for a long time a decayed Georgian city” and then changed suddenly.
“It’s like there’s an inner signal cities get to put on new clothes, which I think Manchester certainly has.”
Barry lives in the Irish county of Wicklow with his family, so he relishes the chance to visit some of his readers who inhabit a rather different setting.
“It’s very reviving for a writer to go to back to a place and reconnect to some of the readers there,” he says. “It seems to be a bigger medicine for the writer than for the reader, sort of revivifying, because I live here in the mountains quite remotely so I try to stay here, but at the same time to attend to the signal to go somewhere special like Manchester.”
He is a veteran of literary festivals, both international and home-grown. He recalls how a visit to a Toronto festival helped him while he was feeling at a low point in his work, because just being in the presence of fellow writers provided him with the necessary inspiration.
“All these literary festivals have different characters, you know, and you can just see from the list of people who are going [to the Manchester Literature Festival] that it’s going to bring a sort of a very special focus – the owls of literature you might say, flying to the same spot, creates a certain sort of magic.”
He adds humbly that such festivals remind him that writing “is more than worth it and in fact it’s an incredible privilege, and when you sit in a room with 200 to 300 people who are your readers it just comes at you, a very clear message how lucky you are”.
“So I’m going to Manchester to be reminded of my luck, I think,” he laughs.
Whether luck has played a part in Barry’s career is up for debate, but his CV speaks for itself. He has written five novels as well as several plays and collections of poetry, and won numerous awards for his work. His 2008 novel The Secret Scripture was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Costa Book of the Year Award alongside other accolades.
Meanwhile, Colm Tóibín is the author of seven novels and has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize three times. Barry thinks that their event will be something slightly special because of their friendship of 30 years. He and Tóibín have presented a few talks together, but Barry always hopes he’ll be bumping into him somewhere.
“I’d almost do this just to see him, because I don’t see him enough.”
So, this event will be more of a meeting of old friends than a formal discussion. In fact, it has been promoted as a ‘conversation’ rather than a lecture. Barry tells me that, because of their relationship, “man and boy, as it were,” he has had a very clear view of Tóibín and what’s he’s achieved over the years. He shows a great deal of admiration for his friend, whom he calls a “sterling soul”.
“I think people who read Colm, readers and writers, know exactly what I mean, he’s a sort of a touchstone and he’s good for you, and the audience will be getting something from him that not every writer has, which is a kind of an aura that comes from somebody who is full of intent and is dedicated in a kind of a light way.”
What exactly will they be talking about at the event, then? Well, both authors will read some of their own work as they have each released a new novel this year: Barry’s The Temporary Gentleman revisits characters from his novel The Secret Scripture and Tóibín’s Nora Webster revisits the main character of his best-selling novel Brooklyn. They will then get down to the topic at hand, which is sharing ideas about contemporary Irish literature. So, what does Barry think about the state of the Irish novel?
“It’s in fantastic health,” he says. “There’s some incredible things going on. I mean first of all there was that generation just behind me and Colm which was Colum McCann, Joseph O’Connor, Joe O’Neill, who are valuable, delightful writers and then suddenly as if by biologic signal you get in a great rush writers like Kevin Barry, Audrey McGee, I mean suddenly a little army, a platoon of fabulous writers, something which, for our little island of around four million people, is very cheering.
“I mean I suppose I should also be buying arsenic and putting it in their soup, because they might be taking sales away from us,” he laughs. “But apart from the murderous instinct there’s also that grateful instinct too, thank god.”
I ask him if he thinks that any new ideas might come to light during his discussion with Tóibín.
“Well, the lovely thing is, it’s only at these events that sometimes you discover new things about what you’ve done for yourself, it’s almost like a very positive version of psychotherapy. When you’re in psychotherapy you have moments of illumination, and you get that in these events, where you’re vocalising something, saying something that you didn’t quite know until you said it, and that’s the best sort of event.”
“If you’re very honest and open, which I think you should be, then it can be quite revelatory, even to the degree of leading onto a track for your next book. So they’re very valuable, actually quite mysterious these events, and I think that’s why audiences come, because you’re going to get somebody speaking honestly in a way an audience member does themselves on occasion, and that’s kind of valuable in itself. Considering the nature of the human creature, the possibility of honesty is at least cheering, or at least something in our favour, so that’s what we’ll be doing and maybe something will arise up –we hope so.”
It’s very easy to let Barry talk at length, if only to listen to his voice. He has a great knack of storytelling. Whether he’s recounting old memories or voicing his opinion, his tone conveys a soft, thoughtful narrative. But alas we must round off the interview, so finally I ask him if the audience will be able to put questions to the two writers.
“Oh definitely yeah, I think that’s terribly important,” he admits. “I mean it’s not supposedly different creatures up on the stage and the audience, you’re all there as individuals. That’s why these writers’ festivals exist, they can be funny, but at the same time there’s a serious intent, people are looking for questions maybe more than answers.”
He promises to take extra care to listen carefully to Tóibín’s and the audience’s questions, so as to avoid straying too far away from the topic at hand, again stressing the value of honesty between speaker and listener.
“You have to be on your toes to pursue that vein of honesty to its last drop, there’s no other way to answer these questions.”
And, in all honesty I think he will.
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