Beyond Certitude

An interview with the author Colin Barrett

Darran Anderson

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Darran Anderson: You’ve created a setting in Young Skins that’s fictitious but instantly recognisable to those of us who grew up in purgatorial small-town Ireland, where boredom turns the mind to devilry and debauchery. At the same time, the assumption that Glenbeigh must correspond to a real place seems a hasty one; it ignores the fact that writers, by definition, make stuff up. How do you find balancing experience and imagination in your writing? Do you feel there’s a pressure to keep the story authentic without encroaching on the histories of actual living people?

Colin Barrett: To answer the second question first, I never worried about authenticity too much either way. The fictive is the only way I can usefully orient myself to the material of my own experience, and my experiences of other people’s experiences. Trying to straitjacket the putatively autobiographical into some kind of narrative or formal arrangement was not strictly interesting to me. As I was inching along from one story to the next I was concentrating mostly on technical stuff, keeping the internal register of the things correct. But the town, the contemporary provincial Irish rural town and environs, certainly kept recurring as I was writing. It seemed vital as a setting, and directly encouraged the nervous, coiled energies of the characters and the narratives that were working the best. As each story featured a variation on that town, I eventually made the towns the same place, the nicely spectral, mutable locale of Glenbeigh, which because it is not real can change in scale and topographical detail as per the requirements of each story. There was never any question of setting them in a 'real place'. It would have felt like an eschewal of responsibility, a reaching for an alibi, to pin a real life name to this world. Reality tends not to reward vehement professions of allegiance anyway. 

DA: When you're writing a story, do you know where it's going? Is there a map from the beginning or do the characters ever lead you through the narrative in unintended directions?

CB: I don't know where they are going. Stories where I envisage too much in advance almost never work out; the story either dies on the way or the proposed shape ends up abandoned. They stay alive by resisting, right up until they are done. There's usually some false starts - I might have an initial character and premise, and after working on that for a while, some other, minor character or incidental moment takes my interest instead, or rather offers a resolution to some impasse in tone or structure that was in retrospect bedevilling the false-start story.

There is the rare story that comes along and can be written in sequence, beginning, middle and end. Others -most- need to be attacked in increments, and I have to alternate them with other pieces, which luckily I don't mind doing.

As for the characters, I'm not very interested in trying to explain them or, say, justify their originary wound. No one gives a shit about your originary wound. Maybe it sounds disingenuous, but they arrive to me as enigmatic, inexplicable creatures, and the stories are merely the method by which I try to delineate -without damaging or diluting- their fundamental opacity. 

DA: The stories in Young Skins often have pretty bleak aspects and outcomes. It’s been pointed out that they are also filled with biting humour, skewed friendships and sharp, witty dialogue. Does it strike you as strange that all these things are presumed to be incompatible with one another?

CB: I don't think that's been a problem really. I mean I think readers have been able to reconcile those variances in tone. Most the writers I admire have been able to pull off those combinations of seriousness and humour in their sleep. I'll hold off going into a windy disquisition on what I think constitutes 'great literature', but it strikes me- and I'm a haphazardly-read, doubtlessly prejudiced git- that the abiding and deepest subject of most writing is failure, and failure is fundamentally, or finally, comic. So writing without (attempting) humour is impossible to me. Unleavened self-seriousness and stringently relentless misery in writing is fake. If not fake, less humane and ultimately less interesting.

DA: You’ve spoken of how the characters in Young Skins are trying and failing to escape where they are. It’s reinforced by passages where descriptions of land become synonymous with the darkened mood of the observer and vice versa. There’s also a sense though that the characters are trying and failing to escape themselves. For some of them, wherever they’d go, the problems would remain because they can’t run away from themselves. Would that be too fatalistic a view?

CB: All I can say on this is that these were the kind of characters that interested me. When I was in secondary school -it was an all-boys school- there were several lads who were, by the standards of empimpled, mouth-breathing fifteen year olds, raconteurial prodigies, sharp-witted hellions. They were very smart if not academically inclined, they enjoyed making of themselves a public spectacle, and they were fearless, inveterate troublemakers. I mean a lot of kids kick against authority, but only up to a point. The people I'm talking about just had to step over the line, every time. In the classroom they expended these torrential quantities of ingenuity and energy and passion in making life as difficult as possible for the teachers, and ultimately, of course, for themselves. I always thought: well, you’re making me laugh, but keep your mouth shut, your head down, and get out of here. When you get out of here you can do what you like! But they were compelled to chase these pyrrhic victories.

I don't know if I succeeded, but I wanted to capture something of the workings of that contradictory impulse; that willed straining against a confine or limit that increases rather than diminishes your degree of bondage to it. That was the basic, ferociously repeating movement, I wanted to examine.

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DA: There’s a refreshing subversive element to your stories. They lead the audience to sympathise with unsympathetic characters and view perceived ideas from different more sceptical angles (love, for example, as a sort of obsessive and elusive curse at times). How important is it to you to avoid clichés and the easy judgements?

CB: The avoidance of cliché, easy judgements etc are always a consideration though I don't know if the work always avoids those things quite as successfully as it should. Of course, subverting clichés is itself a cliché, and so on, and you can never rule out the possibility that even clichés won't at some point have their uses.

But yes, in terms of playing with perceived ideas and sympathies - why else write fiction, why else write? I don't write to find things out, or resolve some notion or conflict, to narrow things down or efface the gaps in reality. I write to keep the fissures open, the cracks cracked. When you are writing you spend a long time inhabiting states of indefinition, so it’s only natural that you eventually encounter or occupy strange or unconventional positions, stances, perspectives. Unknowingness, irresolution, ambivalence - fiction thrives within, is only possible at all, because of these negative conditions. No one writes anything of worth out of a position of certitude. 

I hope too, that the stories achieve a degree of subversion. Fiction should always try to position itself beyond or away or against the official story, the consensus version of reality, received thought, specious fluency etc -should be as inutile as possible only in the sense that it cannot be enlisted as propaganda, cannot be made to serve a side, cannot be reduced to anything less than what it is. It won't always succeed at these things, but it should try. 

DA: I’m interested in the traces of myth in your stories often in the names of people and places. There’s a sense that the heroism of the tales of old has dissipated but the tragedy is still there, if without the folkloric glamour. We seem to be continually re-enacting Greek tragedies without realising it. Given the preponderance of characters sleepwalking into disaster, do you think we have something innate and recurring in us that’s attracted to self-destruction?

CB: It’s that process of dissipation I'm mostly interested in. Not the mythic or folkloric past itself so much as the vestiges and remnants we are left with today, with all these interleaved layers of amnesia. It’s another manifestation of those negative spaces where stories find nourishment. You may not even really know what it is that's gone or elapsed (and I regretfully know piss-all, really, about history or folklore or myth) but you know something has. The absence is what's palpable, like a phantom twinge in a missing limb.  Of course it's dangerously easy to valorise what's gone, or what we imagine what's gone - nostalgia for what we never actually had is an ubiquitous affliction.

In terms of self-destruction. The Joseph Conrad line says it all - 'Let them think what they liked, but I didn't mean to drown myself.  I meant to swim until I sank - but that's not the same thing.'  That's it. That's us. That's them, my characters.

DA: How did the Celtic Tiger boom and bust translate into your writing and the way you perceive Ireland and beyond? Did these things even happen? What changed, if anything? And do you think authors have any responsibility to reflect social concerns, directly or obliquely?

CB: Like everyone else who's been accused of writing a Celtic Tiger narrative, I’m going to claim that at no point was I particularly concerned with writing a Celtic Tiger narrative. And I wasn't. I was always going to write what I wrote about- though that certainly involved the delineation of a social component. The characters in Young Skins are part of a class or group, a recognisable economic and social stratum, and were we still in the midst of an economic boom, these stories could perhaps be positioned as the tale of those 'the boom has excluded' or something like that. That's not me being glib about the semantics of marketing - only admitting that the aesthetic will always intersect with, have to orient itself in relation to, the political and social. So yes, authors have to be aware of that aspect to their work. You can't really write a work that's completely apolitical (and you would have to wonder about the motivations of someone who wanted to) but hopefully you can write one agile and slippery enough that it can't be made, as I said above, simply serve a side. 

DA: There are echoes of the paralysis found in Joyce’s Dubliners and, occasionally, in Kevin Barry’s writing, two authors you’ve mentioned as influences. Do you always feel inspired by the writers you admire or is there ever a sense of needing to escape their gravity? Is an influence best when it’s partly combative? Should we wrestle with earlier writers as well as listen to them?

CB: I need other writing like oxygen. It is fuel. I don't worry too much about the undue influence of other writers. I tell myself that bouts of slavish stylistic impersonation are extremely useful - you figure out technique, what you can and can't do. A relationship with an influence is I suppose combative - a wrestle- but in a productive way. If you are a good reader, if you are alert, engaged, critically attentive; eventually you'll get past your enthralment and see the limits, the weak spots, or simply the points of disengagement in their work. No matter how seemingly virtuoso they are, no writer does everything. So there's always something left, something excised or expunged or incompletely integrated. You just have to find out what that is. 

DA: I gather you’re writing a novel at present. Do you find your approach to it (layers, pacing, development) has differed considerably from writing short stories? Do you find your mind’s in a different space?

CB: It’s made me clueless all over again. It does change everything, your approach even at a sentence by sentence level. You can't try and extrapolate the intensity, the density, that a good short story has over hundreds of pages. Even if you technically achieve it, it may not read well. Novels are strange things - it's a generous form, potentially possessed of endless plasticity, so much so that's it's probably not a form at all, or barely one. That's all I'm trying to keep in mind as I go along with it. And not be crap. Not be crap, not be crap. I'm still writing stories too. 

DA: If an apocalyptic event were to strike tomorrow, which book would you take down into the underground bunker with you or bury for future generations?

CB: The Bible probably. It's a work of compound audacity and insanity, and I've always wanted to get around to reading the whole thing. Between it and the unmitigated contemplation of my own slow, solitary death, I would -hopefully- choose it. Maybe not though.