Author Sebastian Barry answers an eclectic array of questions from Áine Ryan ahead of his appearance at this weekend’s Rolling Sun Book Festival in Westport
AR “The method of laying out a corpse in Missouri sure took the proverbial cake.” This is the opening line of your new novel, ‘Days without End’. Why did it take you nine months to create this sentence?
SB It was hiding on me — it was elusive and unknown. Finally you hear the whistle tune of the strange thing you are after, off you go then to try and make it ‘familiar’. But first the wait!
AR Members of the McNulty family inhabit some of your novels. Does melding fact with fiction make the creative process easier or more difficult, especially when one’s extended family is involved?
SB The fact for this book was very scanty and singular—that a great-uncle of my grandfather had fought in the Indian Wars. It’s not really a matter of easier or harder. But I suppose it feels more like an opportunity than an obstacle when you have to make the whole matter up. Then authenticity is your goal, however that is to be netted by such dubious means.
AR The scene described in ‘The Secret Scripture’ after one of Roseanne McNulty’s rat-catcher father’s rats escapes creating an inferno in an orphanage was haunting. Are such brutal descriptions necessary?
SB Necessary in the sense that this scene rose up as I was writing and it surprised me—until I remembered it was based on an actual account I had read somewhere, not about the rat but about the poor girls falling in their burning dresses from the windows.
AR Some reviewers suggested this was an allegorical book about Ireland’s political struggles at the time. Do you agree?
SB Well, it is point-black about that, in that the book touches on the First World War, the Civil War and the Second World War.
AR You have been nominated for the Man Booker prize twice and have a slew of prestigious awards for your work, is it important to be feted in the official arts world? Does all the prestige and internecine competitiveness not simply remove one more from the real world, which should be one’s canvas?
SB I live quietly in the Wicklow mountains but am very happy to head out for these unforeseen and exciting events. It’s no harm to run away with the circus now and then—and then head soberly home.
AR You live in rural Wicklow, which sounds idyllic. What is your daily working routine? Are you often left staring out the window, and, if so, what do you see (literally and imaginatively)?
SB From my window I see the great beech trees in our garden where the rooks live a noisy and merry life, looking after their offspring and generally giving out. There is also a Sheela-na-gig below me from whom I take great comfort. And then the quiet fields and then the mountains in all their self-composure. All good companions.
AR If you had to weave a novel or a play around the documented life of Major John MacBride or Michael Davitt, both Mayo men who left their mark on history, who would you choose and why?
SB I think I could leave McBride to better pens, but I have a huge admiration for Davitt, for me the most admirable of the great political heroes of his time. We have had a cottage quite near Straide for many years. His mother was a Kielty and one of the current Kieltys is a great friend. He did great things without it seemed any reward for himself, Michael Davitt, and I am not sure we give him his proper due even today.
AR Looking from east to west, from inside The Pale to the wild untamed byways around Clew Bay, are they worlds apart, culturally speaking?
SB Houses separated by a mere mile can be worlds apart. All Dublin-born people like me have a yearning for the west, as perhaps the finishing counterpart. They need each other to make the singular whole that is the Irish soul. I love driving west to Mayo, I love driving east to Wicklow.