Marissa Bell Toffoli

Interview With Writer Sebastian Barry

In books, fiction, plays, poetry, writing on October 14, 2011 at 9:51 pm

Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry. Photo by Marissa Bell Toffoli (2011).

An introduction to Sebastian Barry, author of the novel On Canaan’s Side (Viking, 2011). Novelist, poet, and playwright, Barry lives and writes in Ireland. His plays have been produced in London, Dublin, Sydney, and New York. His novel A Long Long Way was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, as was The Secret Scripture, which was also a Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalist, winner of the Costa Book of the Year Award and the James Tait Black Prize for Fiction, as well as the Irish Novel of the Year. It was also selected as the Best Book of the Year by The Boston Globe and The Economist. Though not a stage performer himself, Barry possesses a talent for dramatic delivery that makes for a luxurious, mesmeric experience when he reads his work aloud.

Quick Facts on Sebastian Barry

  • Home: In the mountains of Wicklow, which are very remote and very quiet (apart from the rooks, who lead a busy, noisy life in the beech trees).
  • Comfort food: Hmm, I love the approach of mealtimes when my wife, Ali, is cooking…
  • Top reads: Victory by Joseph Conrad, The Palliser novels by Anthony Trollope, Netherland by Joseph O’Neill, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Disgrace by JM Coetzee
  • Current reads: The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume Two

What are you working on at the moment?

I am in the devious, dark process of ‘not writing’ a play. Hopefully a prelude to writing it (a hope also shared by the director who commissioned it).

What do you hope readers will take away from On Canaan’s Side?

Perhaps, if possible, a renewed sense, or a reminded sense, that all lives are ‘important,’ that tragedy does not attach itself only to the so-called great in the world, but also those whose lives may be perceived as slight and invisible which, to my mind, sometimes may be in truth the truly great lives, because they are informed and composed by the strange courage of anonymity.

Who do you picture as the ideal reader of your work?

All of us inevitably become experienced in the world, by the mere process of living in it; but my ideal reader perhaps can put aside the cargo of experience somewhat, and access also their original innocence, so that that sense is also brought to the book in their lap.

“My ideal reader perhaps

can put aside the cargo of experience.”

Where and when do you prefer to write?

Although I wrote a play a few years ago in Philadelphia, I am very attached to the superstition that I should write in Ireland, in Wicklow, in this small workroom.

Where would you most want to live and write?

Exactly here, as I said. I can’t work in hotel rooms, other people’s houses, etc. Perhaps because it is easier to be one’s own foolish self at home, which is the self that writes. 

Do you listen to anything while you write?

Not these days. I used to play music, but then I used to smoke as well. I’ve given up on smokescreens, tobacco ones and aural.

Do you have a philosophy for how and why you write?

I do believe writing for a writer is as natural as birdsong to a robin. I do believe you can ferry back a lost heart and soul in the small boat of a novel or a play. That plays and novels are a version of the afterlife, a more likely one maybe than that extravagant notion of heaven we were reared on. That true lives can nest in the actual syntax of language. Maybe this is daft, but it does the trick for me. I write because I can’t resist the sound of the engine of a book, the adventure of beginning, and the possible glimpses of new landscapes as one goes through. Not to mention the excitement of breaking a toe in the potholes.

“True lives can nest

in the actual syntax of language.”

How do you balance content with form?

I don’t think this is a conscious act really, aside from the fact that sometimes the subject of a play has in the end preferred the form of a novel, or vice versa. The fog of the novel is interesting to me; how you could be anywhere, if the fog lifted, or right where you thought you were.

Is there a quote about writing that inspires you?

I currently very much like the anonymous but astute definition that “a novel is a long piece of prose with something wrong with it.”

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Be mad enough to believe in yourself implicitly.

“Be mad enough to believe

in yourself implicitly.”

What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?

Not to read reviews till three or four months after publication.

Is there a question that you’re surprised people ask about your writing?

People ask, or rather say, many surprising things. I am always surprised, or do I mean deeply, deeply heartened, by the enthusiasm of readers, because it reminds me suddenly of the enthusiasm I had when writing.

What do you find most challenging about writing?

In the theatre, I find first nights excruciating, at least of my own plays. I don’t think I have ever seen two acts of one of my plays, at least not on the same night. With novels, the responsibility to make the best book you possibly could, which is a nebulous responsibility because it is not really in your power to meet it; real books write themselves—I nearly added, alas. The real author is the aether, and what flows around in it.

“The real author is the aether,

and what flows around in it.”

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

I like to torture myself by running a few miles every day, because I like the moment after the run is over, and I think, I don’t have to do this again for 24 hours. I like to drive my kids around Wicklow as their personal taxi-driver, unpaid and untipped, but not entirely unthanked. I like to drink coffee with my wife because she is a wise and witty person.

About Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry’s plays have been produced in London, Dublin, Sydney, and New York. His novel A Long Long Way was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, as was The Secret Scripture, which was also a Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalist, winner of the Costa Book of the Year Award and the James Tait Black Prize for Fiction, as well as the Irish Novel of the Year. It was also selected as the Best Book of the Year by The Boston Globe and The Economist. Barry lives in Wicklow, Ireland, with his wife and three children.

Buy On Canaan’s Side, preferably at your local independent bookstore.

[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Sebastian Barry.” Words With Writers (October 14, 2011), https://wordswithwriters.com/2011/10/14/sebastian-barry/.%5D

On Canaan's Side

On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry (Viking, 2011).

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  2. […] as one goes through. Not to mention the excitement of breaking a toe in the potholes.” (Interview With Writer Sebastian Barry by Marissa B. […]

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