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, 2015

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.”