The winner of the International Impac Dublin Award for City of Bohane–Kevin Barry's new collection, Dark Lies the Island, is a grimly funny book influenced by Flannery O’Connor, The Wire, and the “small deranged series of little Irish cites” where he grew up.
How did these stories come about?
I work primarily from the ear: I’m always trying to get how people speak. Irish writing is so strong that it can feel like the country has all been covered, but in fact, there are so many gaps. The small west of Ireland cities and the working classes there have almost never appeared in Irish literature, simply because those communities were never in the way of producing books. There’s a whole mode of expression and a whole way of proceeding that never got into the literature, and that’s really exciting to a writer. The book has a whole slew of influences. One of the things I’ve been most excited by is U.S. television drama. For my money, it’s some of the greatest narrative art of our time. Each series is like a 19th-century Russian novel: you need to do a lot of work in the first few episodes, just as you do in the first 50–60 pages of those books. I wanted to do that; I wanted to make the reader work a little at the start.
So how do you get that orality?
So much of it is just sitting with the work. I go into my workroom seven mornings a week. There will only be one or two mornings a week where it seems to be going well, but to earn those days you have to go through slow, slodgy days where your mind feels like porridge. But it’s on those days that the writing is really happening, when it’s all percolating in the subconscious, that place at the back of your mind. The other thing I’m looking for is intensity. I want it to be an intense experience for the reader. Intensity can take many forms, and very often in my work it’s comic. I have a very broad definition of what a comic mode would be. I would consider Saul Bellow, for instance, to be a comic writer. I think that the comic mode is the most true to the way that we process the world.
When you were assembling the collection, did you think about how the stories work together?
As I put the collection together, I could see that one theme that came up again and again was Ireland and England, these neighboring islands that have had a long love/hate relationship and that define and antagonize each other. I lived in England for a number of years, and [my story] “Beer Trip to Llandudno” is a love letter to the great city of Liverpool, which has a strong Irish presence. And I have quite a fondness for real ale. I think about the order of the stories a great deal, and I’m always horrified when readers tell me that they don’t read the collection in order. I often think about how favorite records are ordered. It was quite risky to open the book with one of my quieter stories; I’m kind of trying, I think, to lure readers into a false sense of security and then assault them with a couple really loud, really strange stories.