WORDSMITH?Colin Barrett, whose debut book, ‘Young Skins’, has catapulted him into the limelight.
Exploring the margins
Young Mayo writer Colin Barrett has been causing quite a stir in literary circles of late. His collection of short stories, ‘Young Skins’, has been shortlisted in the Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year category in this year’s Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards. One of the stories it contains, ‘Bait’ has also been shortlisted in the Writing.ie Short Story of the Year category. Critics are falling over themselves with praise, with reviews hailing his work as ‘moving’, ‘memorable’, ‘sophisticated’, ‘terrific’.
Set in the fictional Mayo town of Glanbeigh, the narratives in ‘Young Skins’ look at the daily lives of teenagers and young adults growing up in the west of Ireland. Story lines drift along the dark side – an attempted sexual assault, unrequited love, revenge, alcoholism… – but the bleakness and brutality is cut through with black humour, and there’s a championing of relationships, albeit in an unconventional way.
In ‘Bait’, relationships are to the fore. “The subject matter is classical,” the thirty-one-year-old author says. “There’s two guys. One is the narrator, and one is the main character, Matteen, who’s the town pool shark, and he’s pining over his ex-girlfriend Sarah. The story starts with the narrator and Matteen driving around Sarah’s estate looking for her. They find her and her friend, Jenny, and they offer to take them to the pool hall, and from there things go … wrong. I suppose it’s about love really, in its own way, but it takes a few perverse turns.”
The subject matter may be classical, dealing with age-old quandaries and the triumphs and tragedies of the human condition, but these tales are distinctly modern.
“They’re contemporary stories, set in the here and now,” explains Barrett, who hails from the village of Knockmore. “Some people have read into them the effects of the post-boom economic downturn. A lot of the characters are at the margins of society, trying to find a way out of their rut, or wherever they are. The stories explore how they do that, how they deal with what they have or how they try to get out of where they are.”
For Barrett, it’s the characters and their connections that form the heart of the stories. “When I grew up it was pre-boom. Then it was boom and then it was after the boom. Regardless, certain fixtures of rural living don’t really change – for good and for bad.
“Setting the stories in Mayo was more for the characters, in terms of their attitudes to life and so on. I think that kind of remains the same, regardless of the economy. A bit of adversity can bring out the best in us, not just in rural Ireland – it’s an Irish thing generally. But there’s also what you might call the claustrophobia of small-town life.
“But I didn’t just want to write a thing about ‘Small-town life strangles…’ – I don’t think that’s true. There’s a lot of solidarity in the friendships and family structures that form in contemporary rural society, and I wanted to show that too.”
“I was very wary about using Mayo. I mean, when you start out writing you don’t want it to be autobiographical or anything like that. I did end up setting it in Mayo, but it’s still in a fictional place, with my own take on things … The more mundane truth is that you’re probably more influenced by other books you read. They help you come to your tone, your characters and your world view as much as external real-life events.”
Barrett’s work has drawn comparison with that of Kevin Barry, who also first rose to prominence after the release of a collection of short stories (‘There are Little Kingdoms’), and who is also interested in the lives of the characters that populate rural and small-town Ireland.
“Kevin Barry is a big influence,” Barrett says, without hesitation. “I’m a great fan of his. Comparisons have been made between his work and mine once or twice. [‘There are Little Kingdoms’] first came out back in 2006 or 2007, and I found it maybe a couple of years later, and loved it. His stories are great.
“I’d been reading other authors – I’d gone through being a big fan of American literature, and I’d read John McGahern, James Joyce, Dermot Healy, Pat McCabe and so on. But Kevin Barry, it was something different. Something contemporary. He was using the here and now as material. And I had a moment – I realised ‘Oh, you CAN write about it, you can write about contemporary country Ireland if you want, and you can do it in an irreverent way and in a way that is alive to you’.”
Barrett’s irreverence is rooted in his use of humour to counterbalance and subvert the most shocking of events. “The stories contain lots of black humour … It’s the humour I grew up with, and it’s a style I like to write with. If you’re going to have heavy and dramatic things happen, I like to offset them by giving the characters a sense of humour … and I’ve tried to bring humour right the way through the stories.”
While violence and atrocity pervade, the author does not use language as a blunt instrument. His sentences neither thunk nor clunk. They flow with a poetic lyricism, carefully and painstakingly crafted.
“I’ve an interest in language, and I do try to spend a long time working on the language, to make it memorable or interesting,” Barrett says, but he’s candid about past forays into poetry. “When you’re 19 or 20, and you don’t have anything to write about, it’s kind of easier to try and write some obscure poetry than write about more everyday events,” he admits laughing. “Yeah, I tried a few times to write poetry, back in the day – and I was terrible it!” Still, it wasn’t all for naught: “I did learn a few lessons about language, and about writing things in interesting ways.”
The long road
After secondary school in St Muredach’s College, Ballina, Barratt studied English in UCD and then worked full time in an office for five years. In 2008 he went back to UCD and did a full-time Masters degree in Creative Writing. Soon after that, his stories started appearing in journals and magazines.
When ‘Young Skins’ was first published by Stinging Fly Press back in September, Barrett spoke about the anxiety and sense of ‘displacement’ that he felt now that the book was finally ‘out there in the world’. How does he feel now that the book has been so well received by the critics and is in the running for the Bord Gais book awards?
“Relief! It’s a massive relief that it got any attention, firstly, and secondly, that the attention was positive. It’s great. But you know, you can’t rely on these things … The attention pretty much soon goes away again, and then you’re back to your desk, writing away yourself again, and it might be another couple of years before anything surfaces – if you’re lucky.
“At the moment I’m lucky enough to be able to write full time. I was working part time in an office in Dublin until June. Then myself and my girlfriend moved to Mullingar. I’ll probably be looking for a part-time job down the line. You have to be able to support yourself in another way. That’s just the reality of it. Very few writers can live just off their writing indefinitely.
“And, to be honest, I don’t even know if it’s a bad thing. I’m writing full time now, but even if I was lucky enough to never have to do anything other than write ever again, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to get out there into the world every now and again and do something else. It won’t distract you – If you want to write, nothing will stop you. You’re possessed by it.”
The road to getting work published can be a long and torturous one, and Barrett gently warns budding writers to be ready for it. “Stick at it, no matter what. It’ll take a long time before you’ll see returns, as it were.
“I did the Masters in 2008, but I was writing for a good ten or fifteen years before that – since I was a teenager. The first ten years, I produced nothing but dross. That’ll happen!
“For short stories, there are a few good journals and magazines in Ireland, like The Stinging Fly Press, that you can send your work to, unsolicited. It’ll be edited to a really high standard if it gets in, and it’ll only get in if it’s good.
“Certainly, for me, that was a really good way to get feedback on my work as I went along. Send them outside Ireland too – you never know, you can get lucky with an American magazine or website or whatever. It’s just about getting your work out there and looked at by a professional editor with a good eye, who can help you get better, ’cause you’ll always need to get better I think. You have to be receptive to criticism.
“It never happens over night – it might look like it does. Whether it’s Donal Ryan or whoever, it seems like they just appear. But it can take years and years of rejection, as Donal himself has pointed out. [Ryan’s acclaimed book, ‘The Spinning Heart’ was rejected 47 times before it was finally published – and went on to make the Booker Prize shortlist.]
“Every writer will tell you, you’ll have more rejections than acceptances, that’s just the nature of it. Get used to that, and don’t worry about it. If you believe in your work, keep putting it out.”
And that’s exactly what Barrett is going to do. No sitting back to bask in the warm glow of success for this author. “I’m writing a novel. ‘Young Skins’ will be coming out next year in England with Jonathan Cape and then in the States with Grove, and those publishers are going to put out the novel as well. I’m working on that at the moment – hopefully it will turn out okay!”
RTÉ Television will be broadcasting the highlights of the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards on RTÉ One on Saturday, November 30. To cast your vote for any of the nominees, visit www.irishbookawards.ie.
Voting closes at midnight, this Thursday, November 21. Colin Barrett’s short story ‘Bait’ is available to read on writing.ie and irishbookawards.ie.