Saturday, May 12, 2012

An Hour With Sebastian Barry (Auckland Writers' Festival 2012)

I first encountered Sebastian Barry a few years ago when I read his wonderful A Long Long Way and have subsequently read his equally wonderful The Secret Scripture.
After listening to him this morning, I have now ordered his On Canaan's Side. It features Lily, the sister of Willy in A Long Long Way, but it is set in the recent past, so she is now an elderly woman. The title refers to some sort of folk song: we had the pleasure of hearing him sing two versions of snatches of it this morning.

Unlike a previous session, the interviewer (Jan Cronin from Auckland University) didn't appear to have a personal connection with Barry, so it was a more formal question and answer session, except that once started, Barry tended to speak for considerable periods of time and undertake a fair few digressions on the way. At least once, he had to stop and ask what question he was supposed to be answering. It was a pleasure to listen to him go, although at first I thought he was a bit hesitant and quite thoughtful in the way he formulated his answers, but that was just in the preliminary rounds. He was a loquacious and very funny speaker. At one point he was talking about being in Switzerland with an awful girlfriend (because as a 22 year old, he thought that to write like Joyce, he just had to live where Joyce did) and said it is a terrible place to be a hypochondriac, because a doctor lives in every third house.

The opening question was about his own ancestors, whether they lurked in his DNA. This provoked a long account of how he hears voices from the past when he goes visiting places such as churches and morphed into a statement of his preference for chancers, those who are on the margins of society taking risks or those who cross over from one thing to another (such as from Catholicism to Protestantism) with a resulting anxiety. Later on, he sort of returned to this when talking of his own origins, answering a question about how he finds his voices. His own childhood didn't leave him with much by way of role models or guidance on how to live, but when he first married and then had children, he had to find out answers to this important question for himself. He had no templates from his family, so looked for cast outs because "all the good ones are cast out". It was this lack of a firm beginning which played a big part in his being a writer: since he needed a sense of a non-toxic origin and was "greedy" for ancestors, he made them up.

With all of this said, when he mentioned meeting Lily (the central character in his novel) just the once, as a very happy 60 year old woman, I was a bit confused as to whether there actually was a real life template for Lily or she was another made up ancestor. He said he saw her when he was a child and unable to understand her plight (life had become quite dangerous thanks to the political climate and so she was sent to America for her safety (not, as he was told, in search of better hats) which was a source of both sadness and solace for her father. He did a ten minute reading, more of a performance, from the novel and I have to say, I don't think he writes as Joyce does, so the living in Switzerland didn't work. Not that that's a bad thing, as Barry has his own style, and it was wonderful to just let the words pour over me: I'll have to read the book to get the sense of what he read, but it did occur to me that he would make a marvellous reader of his own audio-books.

Other questions were about what dictated whether he wrote a play or a novel (this is up to the ancestors themselves - Eneas McNulty refused to perform on stage, so had to be presented via a third person narrator); what he is working on (nothing - just reading bomb disposal books (he later reveals his grandfather was an expert) and 1920's engineering works while he waits for the "little tune" of the next book); and his attitude to critics. Here, he was quite different to Roddy Doyle, who saw them as part of the work. Barry gives them much power to harm, so he avoids any negative criticism for several months after publication, otherwise he won't be able to get on with his life and work.


Anonymous Rachel said...

This is cool!

4:30 PM  

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