Thursday, April 9, 2015

Colin Barrett on Writing Irish Fiction That's NOT About "Crushingly Catholic Repressed Lonely Farmers Weeping in Fields"

Authors Sam Lipsyte and Colin Barrett in conversation
at the Irish Arts Center (photo by Amanda Gentile)
By Nick Fuller Googins
New York, NY, March 31, 2014

A hundred or so of us had packed into the Irish Arts Center’s cozy Hell’s Kitchen theater to hear Colin Barrett’s read from his award-winning debut story collection, Young Skins, followed by a conversation with author Sam Lipsyte. The event, co-sponsored by publishers Grove Atlantic and Stinging Fly and literary magazine A Public Space, kicked off late because of the lousy weather. Folks lingered in the lobby, shaking rain from umbrellas, chatting, ordering early-evening drinks from the bar. When we finally did shuffle in to take our seats, the first thing Barrett said was how thrilled he was for the late start. His reasoning: “The longer we were delayed, the more drink you were going to have, and the more you drink the better I sound.”

The six stories and one novella that make up Young Skins don’t really need any help from the bar or elsewhere. Barrett crafts his sentences with precision. For example, the story “Stand Your Skin,” originally published in A Public Space, features the young Bat (other delightfully-named Young Skins characters: Arm, Tug, Tain, Heg, Nubbin, and Dympna) whose “scuzzy cascade of dark hair,” is a “crackly and stiff, an inextricable nest of flubs, snarls and knots.” A vicious attack years earlier has left poor Bat with a face “exuding all the definition of a bowl of mashed-up spuds,” and a drooping mouth, that “makes him look always a little gormless.”

To kick off the event, Barrett read from the “The Clancy Kid,” the first story in Young Skins, which also serves as a foundational piece, introducing the fictional Irish town of Glanbeigh: “My town is nowhere you have been, but you know its ilk,” the opening sentence reads. “The Clancy Kid” holds a special place for Barrett, serving the role of what he calls the “keynote story” that enabled him to write and shape the collection. “[‘The Clancy Kid’] did make me realize that I had a specific place to write about,” Barrett said, talking on stage with Lipsyte. “It seemed to access some different kind of energy, and that became a fixed point in my mind.”
Colin Barrett (photograph by Amanda Gentile)

"Fixed” indeed. Of the 210 pages in Young Skins, none stray beyond the borders of Glanbeigh, and while Barrett himself did grow up in a rural-ish Irish town, he maintains that Glanbeigh is “a composite of towns and people and attitudes.”

“I needed the membrane of fiction around it in order to just have the right perspective on it, to have that freedom to write without having to be tethered to what actually happened. Once I happened upon this town, it really was generative.”

Common setting aside, Young Skins is not linked in the traditional sense. Characters rarely spill over from story to story, and Barrett likes it that way. “What’s good with the short story form is that there can be these encompassing acts or overall threads. The stories will talk to each other and they don’t have to be overtly connected. I was confident, without knowing why, that they would talk to each other and the attentive reader would see connections and threads without having to repeat characters.”

It’s clear from Barrett’s attention to language that he incorporates a poetic ear in his writing, and Lipsyte asked him to expand upon the relationship between the genres. The short story, Barrett said, “is probably closer to poetry than the novel. They are both within the narrative form but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. You can tell people, ‘This novel gets really good eighty pages in, it’s brilliant after that,’ but you can’t really tell someone, ‘Once you get through the first five pages of this story, the next four are exquisite.’ That’s what I love about [short stories]. The high stakes. You can’t really mess it up. It all has to be the good part.”

When asked by an audience member if he wrote poetry, Barrett hesitated, laughed to himself, and answered, “I don’t. No, I don’t. And none of it’s been published. Thank God.” He went on to explain that he had taken a few late-adolescent stabs at poetry as well as novels, and that these failures eventually led him to writing short stories. “I’m a believer that you have to shed a lot of skins on your way to wherever you’re going to get.”

Influences that pushed him toward writing stories included Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, old copies of The Paris Review and The New Yorker, plus fellow Irish writer Kevin Barry, whose 2007 collection There Are Little Kingdoms showed Barrett that an Irish author could write about Ireland and, as Barrett phrased it, the writing “doesn’t have to be about crushingly Catholic repressed lonely farmers weeping in fields.”

Barrett’s recipe for success? Patience. “Very slowly, lots of back and forth,” he said of his writing process, describing himself as “one of those people who work incrementally and go over things over and over again.”

It seems to be working. Young Skins scooped up the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, among other accolades. Amid such success, the thirty-two-year-old author maintained an almost self-deprecating air of humility on stage at the Irish Arts Center. Discussing the pain of starting a new story, he said it “resembles a prolonged feat of incompetence. It’s amazing how bad you can be at something you’ve done previously several times.”

Lipsyte, toward the end of their discussion, wanted to know what was next for Barrett. “I hate to ask you that dreaded question, but do you have something going?”

“I have something going,” Barrett said.

“A longish thing?”

“Longy. I’m attempting a novel. And it’s really fun but terrifying because I don’t know what I’m doing. So that’s an interesting place to be in.”

“Well there are plenty of amazing writers who just don’t write novels,” Lipsyte said. “There’s this pressure, this commercial pressure to write novels, but I see some people get a little trapped, maybe they’re not ready….” He petered out, then looked over at Barrett and quickly added, “I think you’re going to be fine, though.”

When the laughter died down, Barrett said, “I might show up in eighteen months time with a second book of short stories and a glassy-eyed expression and claim this conversation never happened.”

Sunday, March 8, 2015

News Coverage of The Story Prize Event and Announcement

L to R: Story Prize winner Elizabeth McCracken, founder Julie Lindsey,
finalists Francesca Marciano and Lorrie Moore, and director Larry Dark

Here are some links to press accounts of The Story Prize event on March 4, at which eventual winner Elizabeth McCracken and fellow finalists Francesca Marciano and Lorrie Moore read from and discussed their work onstage at The New School, and Julie Lindsey announced the winner:

Reuters







Saturday, March 7, 2015

Video: The Story Prize Event on March 4 at The New School with Francesca Marciano, Elizabeth McCracken, and Lorrie Moore

In case you missed The Story Prize event on March 4 at The New School, here's the video. That night, the three finalists—Francesca Marciano, Elizabeth McCracken, and Lorrie Moore—read from and discussed their work on-stage. And at the culmination of the event, we announced the winner for books published in 2014: Elizabeth McCracken's Thunderstruck


What the Judges Had to Say About Francesca Marciano's The Other Language

When the three judges for The Story Prize make their choices, they provide citations for the books. This year's judges were Arsen Kashkashian, Noreen Tomassi, and Laura van den Berg. We include the citations in congratulatory letters we present to each finalist, along with their checks ($20,000 to the winner, $5,000 to the other two finalists). To protect the confidentiality of the judges' votes and the integrity of the process, we don't attribute citations to any particular judge.



Here's what the judges had to say about Francesca Marciano's The Other Language, one of three finalists for The Story Prize:
In this lyrical collection of stories, Francesca Marciano’s characters travel the world from India to Africa from Rome to New York, always attuned to the small social nuances that separate us in more profound ways than geography. They occupy Italian villas, Indian guesthouses, and Kenyan beach bungalows without truly inhabiting them. Marciano’s people come together in startling ways that endure, while bonds that appeared permanent are so fragile they wither away in a single bitter conversation. Regardless of setting or circumstances, the prose is so supple, so sure-handed, that we as readers are prepared to journey wherever Marciano’s imagination will take us.

Friday, March 6, 2015

What the Judges Had to Say About Lorrie Moore's Bark

When the three judges for The Story Prize make their choices, they provide citations for the books. This year's judges were Arsen Kashkashian, Noreen Tomassi, and Laura van den Berg. We include the citations in congratulatory letters we present to each finalist, along with their checks ($20,000 to the winner, $5,000 to the other two finalists). To protect the confidentiality of the judges' votes and the integrity of the process, we don't attribute citations to any particular judge.


Here's what the judges had to say about Lorrie Moore's Bark, one of three finalists for The Story Prize:
Bark is the great American short story collection. It shows how much can be accomplished in the form without any of the seams ever showing. These eight stories are great tragedies, with all the comedy present that is inherent to the form. The situations portrayed are the stuff of life’s middle period, when things fall apart. People divorce or die; children become less than their potential; the political becomes personal. I have never read a more heartbroken collection, and I laughed the whole time. Welcome to America.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

What the Judges Had to Say About Elizabeth McCracken's Thunderstruck

When the three judges for The Story Prize make their choices, they provide citations for the books. This year's judges were Arsen Kashkashian, Noreen Tomassi, and Laura van den Berg. We include the citations in congratulatory letters we present to each finalist, along with their checks ($20,000 to the winner, $5,000 to the other two finalists). To protect the confidentiality of the judges' votes and the integrity of the process, we don't attribute citations to any particular judge.


Here's what the judges had to say about Elizabeth McCracken's Thunderstruck, this year's winner of The Story Prize:
Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck is a tour de force of heartbreak, magic, beauty, and longing—all rendered in incandescent prose. Each story in the collection reads like a masterwork, rich and confident and surprising, and together they form an electrifying whole. Thunderstruck is one of those rare collections that will remain imbedded in my imagination for life.
It seems impossible that stories so filled with disillusionment, disappearance, and all manner of disconnection among such a flawed group of human beings could leave the reader feeling so hopeful, so renewed. How does Elizabeth McCracken manage to do this so beautifully in her extraordinary new collection, Thunderstruck? It's not only because sentence by sentence she is such an accomplished and wonderfully observant writer. It is not only because she is the master of the small and perfectly telling detail—the mother's light tap of a hand on her child's coffin, a suitcase fallen over like "a shot dog," "a pair of red and white espadrilles that had run in the rain." It is because she writes with such an open and compassionate heart, so that even the most damaged and lost of her characters thrum with life. In her work the ordinary becomes the transcendent, everyday sadnesses and losses are witnessed and honored, and the reader closes the book with the sense, that yes, life can be cruel and wanton and its losses devastating, but it is also profoundly beautiful.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Winner of The Story Prize Is Thunderstruck by Elizabeth McCracken


Elizabeth McCracken's first story collection in 21 years proved to be a triumphant return to the form, as she took home the top prize of $20,000 and an engraved silver bowl as winner of The Story Prize for her collection, Thunderstruck (The Dial Press). After she and fellow finalists Francesca Marciano and Lorrie Moore read from and discussed their work on-stage at The New School in New York City on March 4, the Founder of The Story Prize, Julie Lindsey, announced McCracken as the winner, and the author took the stage to accept the award to enthusiastic applause from the audience.

In the days ahead, here and on our Web site (as well as on Instagram) we'll post more about the event, including citations from the judges, photos from the event and the after party, links to media coverage, and, eventually, video.