Sunny Friday evenings in Dublin are as giddy as they’re rare, and this last Friday, 7th June, was even giddier than most. Pearse Street flushed green with soccer jerseys headed for the Aviva Stadium and a win against the Faroe Islands, but the real celebration was happening inside in the Conference Room of Pearse Street Library, where hordes of us turned our back on the sun and the soccer in favour of a reading by Kevin Barry, whose novel City of Bohane is the latest winner of the Impac Prize.
As it happens, Bohane will be the last winner of the Impac prize; the company has withdrawn its sponsorship. We all hope someone will step into that breach, but no one was talking about that on Friday. Instead there was a buzz of delight and anticipation. Kevin Barry’s win was popular, not just because he’s one of our own, not just because we felt he and his novel City of Bohane deserved to win, but because there’s a lot of real affection for Kevin Barry among readers and festival-goers and other writers. You’d have to be of a truly sour disposition not to respond to his joy in the prize, and the money; in the novel itself and in the process of writing it.
Anyone who’s ever heard this man read to an audience knows that he doesn’t hold anything back. You can almost see him climb inside the story and hold it up to show you, turning it this way and that to give you a better view. You can certainly hear it, because he’s a brilliant reader. He does all the voices. Even his explanations have panache. Bohane is a West of Ireland Western, he told us.
I sat behind two women who obviously hadn’t read the book and hadn’t heard Kevin Barry read before. They were a little uneasy at first, letting out short bursts of laughter, giving each other sidelong looks, but then suddenly they were caught – I could see this happening even though I was laughing pretty hard myself – and fell right into the convulsive swing of the reading. The delight in the faces they turned to each other then nearly made me wish I was a first-timer too.
After the reading, there was an interview, by Niall McMonagle. It didn’t seem as much an interview as a high-octane conversation that could have happened anywhere, whether we were there to listen or not. They took off at speed, practically mid-sentence. My hand nearly fell off, taking notes. Here’s a sample of what was said, and you’ll just have to allow for gaps and dips in accuracy due to cramping fingers. I hope I caught the gist of it.
N McM: you have to spend a lot of time alone, do you like that?
KB: It’s great fun … I get to pretend to be an 89 year old woman (KB admits that Girly Hartnett, who took to her bed several decades ago, is one of his favourite characters in the novel) .… I act it all out, try out all the voices. Your ear will catch the false notes faster than the eye will see them. There are slow days, but …
NMcM: City of Bohane is set in the future but there’s no gadgets, no Google, no gimmicks in it
KB: Technically it’s set in 2053, but it could be 1853. Bohane has a lot in common with certain deranged Irish cities, like Limerick or Cork, with Galway weather. I didn’t want to explain it, but to present it to the reader and hope they’ll go with it …
Bohane began in Porto. Barry was looking around, getting ready to embark on the novel, when he saw where he was: the city, the alleyways, the big dark river – and thought: This’ll do, I’ll just move it up about 800 miles, and got himself a notebook.
NMcM: The novel is – at least in part – about the sorrow of growing old. Why the preoccupation with growing old?
KB: It’s set in the future but the people are preoccupied with the past. It’s a very Irish thing. The romance of Bohane is a romance with the lost-time.
NMcM: Where did ‘Bohane’ come from?
KB: It’s an old Cork surname, quite rare. It came to me in a vision (laughs). It sounded right. Later, I did a reading with Thomas McCarthy (the poet and novelist, who also works in Cork City Libraries), who knows everything, and afterwards he said: you know ‘Bohane’ means ‘a little dwelling place’? and I thought: yes!
NMcM: What drew you to writing?
KB: In the summer of 1978 Elvis Presley tragically died. I was so moved, I wrote a whole short story. In the story Elvis’ spirit went up into a seagull (although what a seagull was doing in Tennessee …) and was carried across the Atlantic to a boy on a beach in Ireland …
NMCM: How old were you?
Later, there was classic teenage stuff, poetry, Keats etc, hanging around graveyards. Then journalism. I was writing, it was fine, but it didn’t satisfy some deep back part of the brain – going to work as a writer means crawling into your nerves. I’d advise strongly against it.
(We knew he didn’t mean this. Or did he?)
Then N McM talked about KB’s short stories – his first and third books were collections of his hugely successful stories, There are Little Kingdoms and Dark Lies the Island. NMcM cited the received wisdom (not that he’d subscribe to it himself, I’m guessing) that short stories don’t sell, etc.
NMcM: Were you under pressure to write a novel?
KB: I don’t think that’s true anymore. It’s changing. Short stories are coming out into the limelight again … I don’t break them down. There are stories, and they’re different lengths.
NMcM: Claire Keegan says, if there’s no problem, there’s no story: what’s your problem?
KB: I’m trapped in the past
NMcM: But you’re a Hip Hop modern dude! … You’ve been a screenager, you’re tuned into a soundtrack people older than you are not aware of …
KB talked about his influences, then. Not just books, but TV and film, box sets: The Sopranos, The Wire, etc. He talked about loving their structure, the way the characters talk, how the camera moves, how it’s cut etc. “As a writer you’re a magpie, you pick up anything that shines.”
Bohane is going to be a film. “I’ll be playing Girly Hartnett. I wouldn’t let anyone else near her.”
(Question from the floor): Do you know how Bohane became what it is?
KB: I wanted it to be open, for the reader to arrive at it for themselves – Their past is not necessarily our present. They could have arisen from different circumstances.
(Question about the challenge of translation)
KB: I think it’ll be difficult, yes. There’s a French version … I said I’d love them to imagine a city like Marseilles in 2053. I’m told the young guy who did it is brilliant, I wish I could read it.
(Question): I heard you on radio, you said the first pages won’t grab you – could you say more about that?
KB: The reader has work to do, at first. There’s a large cast of characters, the language – but then it clicks, and the reader has earned the novel. I hope it’s not too hard.
NMcM: There’s lot of fashion in it – are you a bit of a clotheshorse?
KB: Well … (He gestures to his own understated clothes) Look at me! (He looks out at us, we’re laughing – there’s a lot of laughing during this interview) I had fun with the costume design. The great thing about a novel is, there are no budget constraints …
NMcM: One last question. William Trevor said “Nowadays books tend to be shoveled into a chat-show wheelbarrow ….” Can you comment?
KB: It’s a difficult time for books. There’s so much good stuff out there. TV, films etc. Books have been pushed to the periphery. It’s important that we fight like dogs … whatever it takes, books have to be kept out there in the public gaze.
Then he read, from a short story, “Across the Rooftops”
We could have stayed listening for many happy hours, but outside, a white-clothed table waited with generous glasses of the white and the red, fruit juice. Platters of dainties were carried around from group to group. And the library’s doors stood open to Pearse Street, where people went about their business, not knowing what they were missing.