Kevin Barry on Reimagining the Novel: “You Can’t Be Afraid to Go Nuts on the Page”


Kevin Barry has, for almost two decades now, been heralded as one of Ireland’s most dazzlingly gifted fiction writers. Whether he’s conjuring a dystopian city on Ireland’s Atlantic coast, imagining John Lennon’s post-Beatles island pilgrimage, or following a group of middle-aged ale enthusiasts on a train journey to Wales, Barry writes with incomparable brio and achingly melancholy humanity. Perhaps most impressively, the man is (as Robert Hass once said of Cormac McCarthy) incapable of writing a boring sentence. (Choose a few at random if you think I’m being hyperbolic.)

Barry’s latest novel, his first set outside of Ireland, is a soulful, sexually-charged, rip-roaring Western that takes place in Butte, Montana in 1891. Irish immigrant Tom Rourke, a poetic wastrel of ill-repute who—when he’s not frequenting the vice-saturated mining town’s brothels, bars, and dope houses—acts as a Cyrano for Butte’s lonely hearts, begins an all-consuming affair with Polly Gillespie, the no-nonsense mail-order bride of an uber-pious mining Captain. After burning down a Croatian boarding house, the lust-drunk pair light out for California on a stolen horse, with a trio of ghoulish bounty hunters in hot pursuit.

I spoke to Barry over Zoom from my home in western Wyoming, about 30 miles from the town of Driggs, Idaho (pop. 2,250), where Tom spends a brief-but-memorable chapter absorbing drunken threats and knife fighting instruction from the brother-sister proprietors of a no-name bar.

–Dan Sheehan

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Dan Sheehan: When you went out to Butte to research the novel back in 1999, did you know the full extent of the Irish presence there?

Kevin Barry: I started researching the novel so long ago, it was almost pre-internet. And all of that initial research was done in libraries in Cork. Before I went out to Butte, I didn’t realize just how strong the whole Irish heritage thing still was. We’re talking a huge St. Patrick’s Day parade; phone books full of West Cork names; and big, fat West Cork heads walking around the streets. Guys with big, boiled ham Irish heads, but with cowboy hats sitting on top of them. Looking like West Cork farmers, you know? The same type.

When I started writing the book again a couple of years ago, I did wonder would I go back and do a bit more research. But it felt nice to have it just stored away. I almost had an alchemical feel for the place at that point. They were lovely there, though, I have to say. They were really nice people. When you show up there with an Irish accent, they embrace you to the town very quickly. They brought me around and fed me and took me drinking and gave me boxes of letters from old miners. I could sense at the time that it was great material, but I just didn’t have the chops to write it back then.

I think you earn the good stories by writing your way through the bad ones, you know?

DS: But you did write a version of the novel, and then put it aside for nearly 25 years?

KB: I’ve always kept a kind of a work diary, just a week-by-week thing to prove to myself that I’m doing something, and I found it for ’99 and 2000. I was, poignantly, doing a weekly word count on the book. I wrote 120,000 words of the fucking shit. I knew it wasn’t working at the time, but even at that point I think I had a thing about finishing anything I dragged onto the desk. Bring it to a finish, and at least then you’ve given it a shot. I think that’s good practice. I think you earn the good stories by writing your way through the bad ones, you know?

What happened then was that, late in the pandemic, it kind of came back to me. The idea of doing Butte, Montana. I hadn’t thought about it for years. I was reminded of it when Deadwood came out in 2006. I started watching Deadwood and loving it straight away, and I thought, that’s how I could’ve done my Butte, Montana novel. But you have to invent your own register for it, and I didn’t have a language for it then. So flash forward to late in the pandemic, late 2021. I was due to write a novel, and I’d started another one that wasn’t going for me. I spent about a week writing about a stoner detective in Amsterdam, thinking it was a great setup, but I got bored very quickly and I just thought, nah. Then I was walking in the woods up in the Bricklieve Mountains one day—this was still in our restricted pandemic era—and I thought, God, what if I just did runaway lovers? Just a really tight, small story, with Butte, Montana as the backdrop.

I must say, it’s great fun to write a Western. The conventions of the genre give you plot and momentum naturally, because people are lighting out on horses all the time. You can’t help but make the pages turn. So yeah, it was enjoyable, but worrying as well. When you’re writing a Western, you have to have neck, you know. When you find yourself writing a sentence that begins with “The sheriff said…” [laughs] you have to commit. Commit, and see if you can bring your own thing to it.

DS: Any Western that operates on this kind of high linguistic level, this hypnotic blending of the lyrical and the profane, is going to invite comparisons to Deadwood, but the novel also brought to mind True Grit, the Border Trilogy, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, John Maclean’s Slow West, The Sisters Brothers—Westerns unafraid of leaning into melancholy, existentialism, and off-kilter humor. Did you have particular Western touchstones in mind as you were conceiving the story?

KB: A lot of the stuff that you’ve just mentioned there. My favorite thing about the novel is probably Polly’s voice, and that came quite specifically from Terrence Malik films, from Badlands and Days of Heaven. There are these great, weird, poetic voiceovers from Linda Manston and Sissy Spacey in those films, and I was thinking of them as I was writing Polly.

With the practice of writing fiction for 20 odd years, I’ve become a bit more economical with my time. So I won’t give something six months to see if it’s a novel. I’ll give it a couple of weeks to see if I can get any flow going with it. At the start of this I said, “okay, I’ll try Tom for a week, and I’ll try Polly for a week, and I’ll see how they both feel.” I was writing Tom for the first week and he was on this kind of pub crawl, brothel crawl, dope house crawl around Butte, and I thought, this feels fine. It feels promising. He’s 29-year-old literary man. I know what that feels like. I’m kind of naturally getting the world building as we go around on his crawl of the town. Week two, I was more worried because she’s an American voice and you think to yourself, am I chancing this a bit? But as soon as I started writing that second Monday morning, inside 10 minutes I said, “you have it, you have the novel,” because she was there. She kind of earths it, in some way. I think they work as a love pair, as a romantic idea, because she’s very sure of who she is, and he has no idea who he is, and it’s when they come together that he gets something. The horrible contemporary phrase would be, “she completes him.”

I’m often writing about Irish men from working class backgrounds, my own kind of background, and their physical stance can be very defensive. There’s hundreds of years of class and religion and power in that stance.

It was a really lovely fucking reprieve from the dreary pandemic era to go out to my little shed every morning and get up to my eyes in this old romance and in a Western. It was just a great escape from what was going on in the the world. I was sad when I finished it, and I finished it quite quickly. I wrote it in about 10 or 11 months, and I missed them when they were gone from the desk. They were a memorable pair to spend time with.

I’ve seen myself change a little as a writer over the seven books to date. I’ve become more interested in character than I used to be. I used to be primarily interested in language and style, and I’m still devoted to that, but I’m really most interested now in who they are. Who are the people? Who are the characters? What’s wrong with them? Have they any hope? I kind of go all in. I really reside with them when I’m writing. I’m thinking about them all the time, putting them into situations. Not necessarily very dramatic situations, just thinking about who they are. I think a lot about how characters hold themselves physically, about their stance and the way they array themselves in the world. I think that if you can get that, you can get their speech and their soul and everything about them. I try to imagine how the character is holding herself or himself, and it’s very interesting.

I’m often writing about Irish men from working class backgrounds, my own kind of background, and their physical stance can be very defensive. There’s hundreds of years of class and religion and power in that stance. It’s how they present themselves to the world. Tom has notions about himself; he wants to be a kind of an outlaw or something, so there’s a bit of a shoulders back attitude with him. But he is also very unsure. He’s searching for an identity. Polly says at one point he’s trying on versions of himself as if they’re jackets.

DS: I love that idea, that Tom and Polly have an awareness of the performance inherent in how they navigate the world, both alone and together. It’s as if they’re cosplaying outlawdom, but the stakes, and the consequences, remain very real. And they’re aware of that, too.

KB: I think that’s right. I think they’re very aware that this is the great dramatic event of their lives, the thing that they’ve been waiting for. She’s facing into an extremely dreary life, raising children for a religious maniac in Butte, Montana. And he needs to escape from this lurch that he’s on, just going from bar to brothel to dope house. He needs something. 1891 is a really interesting time to write about, because it’s the birth of our world in many ways. It’s the era when every little main street in North America suddenly has the photographic studio. For the very first time, ordinary, working-class people are thinking about their image. They’re thinking about how they look. Rich people have been doing for centuries, having oil paintings made, but now everyone is presenting an image, and sending photographs back to Ireland. “Oh, look at him, he’s fantastic. Out there in the Rocky Mountains in his suit.” When people start to imagine how they’re looking, they start to put themselves into roles. And, exactly as you said, cosplaying. There is that, but the stakes then, of course, are going to be very, very serious. But Tom and Polly are death drawn as a pair as well. Polly is very involved with the whole romance of it. She’s described as having “a death-loving shine to her eyes.” She’s a dangerous young woman to take up, but she’s just what he needs.

DS: In a recent New Yorker interview, you said: “Doomed Romances appear to be my stock-in-trade at this stage. If I were to hang out my writer’s shingle, those would be the only two words I’d need to put on it.” What is it about doomed romance that you find so appealing?

KB: When you find yourself writing about love, you’re immediately on dangerous ground. You’re immediately on swampy ground. It’s full of ooze, and very soft, sentimental mud that you can just sink into. It’s a risk, you know. But then, once you get it going, you think, Jesus, why would I write about anything else? It makes the stakes so high all the time. It’s a proper love affair, and it’s a lust affair. Life in Butte, Montana, in 1891 is hard, and you have to make your entertainment where you can find it. There’s a great old saying the Italians have about sex. They call it the Poor Man’s Opera. And that is exactly what it is for Tom and Polly. The dramatics and the theatrics of their lives are found in this love affair. And they know, even as it begins, this it’s something they have to follow, that they’re powerless against it. Badlands, Bonnie and Clyde, MacCabe and Mrs. Miller. Death drawn couples and runaway lovers. It’s an irresistible setup to write about, to start off on.

Irish people are economic refugees. That’s who we’ve always been, for centuries deep.

DS: I think that in some ways, the West, at least as we know it—the White European-infiltrated West—doesn’t exist without that performance, that cosplay, that romanticism. If you go into town here today, you’ll see multi-millionaires duded-up in such a way that is clearly an attempt to access a tiny piece of that authenticity, whatever it was. And even the style that they’re mimicking was, once upon a time—100, 130 years ago, say—also something of an affectation.

KB: I do love the whole convention of Hollywood stars buying ranches.

DS: Harrison Ford is one. I saw him at the gym the other day.

KB: I would give Harrison Ford a pass. The man is an ex weed dealer, which you have to love.

KB: A carpenter who used to sell weed to John Didion and her husband, which is one of those great little footnote stories.

KB: There’s a great nonfiction book called Bad Land: An American Romance by Jonathan Raban, a fantastic nonfiction writer who died recently. It’s about the settling of Eastern Montana in the very early 1900s. Basically, the rail companies were giving away land to people, and writing these fictions about what you were going to get when you got out there. It was awful land, very hard to make a living on, but people made the trip and had to buy into the fiction. They had to buy into the idea of themselves as rugged settlers.

A great thing for an Irish writer looking at this is that it’s a reminder of who we are. Irish people are economic refugees. That’s who we’ve always been, for centuries deep. We almost fucking invented the state of being an economic refugee, you know? And we’ve always been really good at it. We’re quite personable people, but there’s also a native kind of cunning, or “cuteness,” as we say, about how new societies organize themselves. Look at how they organized themselves in a place like Butte. The Irish community was 10,000 strong, a third of the city by 1891. They started by opening little businesses, mainly pubs. After they had that established, they very quickly took over the police, and then the political apparatus of the town. So if you go back to Butte in the very early 1900s, 10 years after this book is set, it’s a little Irish machine town, and remained like that for decades, where it was just completely run by the micks.

So, in the current climate when you have all these horrible new tensions in Ireland about immigration, it’s important to remind ourselves that, of all the nations, we should be the most welcoming as fucking possible of people trying to immigrate into the country, because we’ve gone wherever we’ve wanted to for fucking centuries, and generally received good lives and good welcomes there. So it’s good to remind ourselves of that. But also, as a writer, pragmatically, the diaspora is a great resource. We’ve gone everywhere.

DS: Could you see yourself returning to the Hiberno Mountain West, or is the pull of other Irish diasporas too great?

KB: I would have to admit that Butte, Montana feels like a nice piece of real estate for me.

DS: You could make a nice life for yourself there, Kevin.

KB: I have a wariness of repeating myself, though. I did at one point promise publishers that I would write a second City of Bohane novel, and I even got to the point of sitting down one Monday morning to start the fucking thing and then, that same morning, saying, “nah.” Because I could do it, you know. I could spend 10 months or a year and I’d be able to do it, but there would be no new excitement or energy for me in it. I might have better novelistic chops than I had writing the first City of Bohane novel, but I wouldn’t have the same excitement in the language.

DS: Do you think that would come through in the writing? As in, do you think that even if you were able to fool people, you’d know that there was juice missing?

KB: Maybe you can make a facsimile of the energy you once had, but I’m wary of writing follow-ups or sequels. That’s never to rule anything out, God knows what might happen, but the thing about writing fiction is that it’s unpredictable. With the best laid plans, you’re never quite sure what’s gonna have a bit of flow for you on the desk. What’s gonna give you enough for a novel. The Amsterdam novel has been in my head for years. A London Irish novel has been in my head for years, because I spent quite a bit of my early twenties in London in the early 90s, so I have a strong sense of that period there, just when the city was starting to gentrify and really change from the twentieth century into the twenty-first.

I’m very determined to keep writing short stories, beacuse nobody wants you to.

What it’s usually about for me, though, is waiting for the characters to appear. And that’s always a lovely moment. That’s when you hear a kind of a tuning fork, a kind of a clean, tingling sound and you think, okay, that’s right. Off we go. It’s about having the patience to wait it out, to wait until you have them. It’s always a punt when you’re trying to come up with fresh ideas. The thing that’s both wonderfully liberating and absolutely terrifying about writing fiction is you never know if it’s there for you when you sit down to a new story. You never know if it’s gonna move for you and if it’s gonna to flow for you.

I guess the one thing that practice and time gives you is that you get more forgiving of the early drafts. You get more forgiving of the first drafts. You realize that you can bring stuff up. All I’m looking for now, really, in a first draft is that the people feel in some way real. Are they coming to life on the page? Are they saying things that are a little unexpected? Am I getting a sense how they hold themselves, how they carry themselves in the world? If I’m getting those things in an early draft, I don’t worry too much about plot. I don’t worry if the language isn’t quite there yet. I know all of those things will come in the subsequent drafts. I’m just trying to Dr. Frankenstein it at the start, to see if can bring the people to life.

DS: Of all the characters you’ve created over the past twenty years, do you have one that feels closest to your heart?

KB: There are a few. I love Cornelius, John Lennon’s driver, from Beetlebone. I love Polly and Tom. I’m very fond of the two of them. Her especially. And when you have a fondness for a character like that, it can be dangerous, because you want to go back and do more.

I’m very determined to keep writing short stories, beacuse nobody wants you to [laughs]. Publishing is quite happy if you don’t ever write any more short stories again, you know, so it behooves us, anyone who does write stories, to keep fucking going and keep doing it. They’re starting to change a little bit for me, though. I manage far fewer now than I used to, because I’m doing all these other things, but I wrote one last year called “Finistère” that was in the New Yorker a couple of months ago. I decided I wanted to write one slower than I usually do. Usually I see if I can get one done in a couple of weeks, but this time I said I’d spend three months on it. I’d take it really slow. And I found it to be a really boring process, to literally go and write just 150 words or 200 words a day. But it made it feel like a slightly different kind of story for me. A slightly quieter story, in some ways. It was interesting to see the change that the writing practice for that story brought in. It made me kind of excited to think about going back and trying to approach the short story in a different way. Because it’s a glorious form, the short story, and it’s very important that writers keep at it, because really they just want us to write novels.

I love writing novels; they’re so hard, and I love trying my hand at them, but I think I’m quite a different writer in the two forms. In story writing, I’m mostly in the realm of realism. It’s often a heightened comic realism, but it’s still realism. With novels, I’m really interested in bringing in genre notes, and I’m really interested in writing novels that can be read quickly. I want to write the three-hour novel, the novel that’s a really intense experience for the reader, that they sit down to read like they’d sit down to watch an epic film. Or a really good play. You sit down and you’re plunged into this world, and you’re trapped, and you have to read it in a sitting. I’m trying to take a lot of the traditional furniture of the novel away. Because we’ve changed as readers, and we’re processing stories in very different ways, and I don’t think writers are as engaged with that as they should be.

When you do literary events and literary festivals now, the average age is fifties and up. If we want younger generations to keep reading novels, we have to change the way novels are written, I think. We have to respond to the way people’s brains process narrative and stories now, which is completely changed because we’re in such a digitized world. And it’s not that being online all the time has made us slower. It’s made us quicker. Brains now operate at a completely different pace.

I’m interested in thinking about these things when I write novels and when I try to design novels. How do you trap the fuckers, you know? How do you really hold them, sit them there, so that they can’t do anything for three hours except find out what happens with this character in this world? Novels, publishing, the whole edifice—it’s surviving for now because of older readers, because of readers in their fifties and older, but that’s not going to hold for too much longer. It could be a very, very different landscape in a couple of decades, unless writers wise up to it and try to redesign the whole idea of a novel. Of what a novel is, and how it should be, how it should be taken, you know? What you hope for, what I hope for, when I’m trying to write one, is intensity. I want to give an intensity of experience that is going to be at a completely different level from watching some shit on Netflix or from doing something on your phone.

DS: I can think of few more different experiences than reading one of your novels, and watching Netflix these days.

KB: Man, I was a big admirer of what was going on in television when I was writing my first novel, City of Bohane. There was great stuff on, but it’s all over. It’s fucking terrible now.

KB: It’s dreadful. I watch this Dutch dude on YouTube doing up two cabins in the Italian Alps. That’s what we’re watching here. We can’t find anything anymore.

DS: Five, ten years ago, there were a dozen amazing things on at once, but it feels like the landscape has all dried up. And then you read industry reports of executives saying, “we’re not interested in this show if you can’t double screen it. If we can’t get generative AI to tweak it for us.”

KB: That’s another thing for novelists to pin above their desks now: “Write the novel that AI can’t write.” Because the AI isn’t fucked-up enough. Novels need to be horrible and messy to give a sense of real, lived life. You can’t be afraid to go nuts on the page. That’s what Irish writing did to establish itself in the early part of the twentieth century. It went fucking mad on the page. People like Flann O’Brien and Joyce and Beckett, they weren’t afraid to really take risks, and that’s what you want to see happening to keep it alive and to keep it going.

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The Heart in Winter by Kevin Barry is available from Doubleday Books, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.



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