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Sebastian Barry on finding his own literary voice: “Eventually you realise you have to whistle your own rackety birdsong”

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Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry is the author of many award-winning novels and plays including The Secret Scripture and The Steward of Christendom and is currently the Irish Laureate for Fiction. He will deliver his final lecture as Laureate – ‘The Fog of Family’ – as part of the International Literature Festival Dublin on  May 30. Tickets are complimentary but must be booked online at ilfdublin.com.

The books on your bedside?

Checkout 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett. On the basis of just one book, the mysterious Pond, Claire-Louise Bennett established a devoted following pretty much worldwide. This is her new book to shake the world anew. Trouble by Philip Ó Ceallaigh. Another tremendous maverick, these are Ó Ceallaigh’s new stories. Suffer the Little Children by Mary Raftery and Eoin O’Sullivan. Still a revelatory book, and still current, and still overwhelming.  

The first book you remember?

The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle by Beatrix Potter. Potter wrote so well she could pack a universe into 60 sentences. I’m still not over the last sentence, read to me by my mother, Joan O’Hara, circa 1959. “Why! Mrs Tiggy-Winkle was nothing but a HEDGEHOG.” 

Your book of the year?

So far, A Very Strange Man, by Alannah Hopkin. This is a strangely consoling memoir, and a very rare thing, being an accurate, candid, and moving book about what it is like to be a writer and to live with a writer. I began it the other morning outside in the sun and finished it some hours later, with a mild sunburn and a sense of great gratitude. 

Your favourite literary character?

Axel Heyst, the main character in Victory, by Joseph Conrad. Conrad has taken a knock in the universities in recent years but he remains a very magical writer, and I don’t see how literature can do without him. His wife, Jessie Conrad, wrote a couple of valuable books about him, and about living with him, and what he was really like. He was a sort of fabulous mess. 

The book that changed your life?

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 If a person can be considered a great book of sorts, then my wife Ali. But it is true that some books effect a gear-change in you, a sea-change. I don’t think I read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick so much as drowned in it. 

The book you couldn’t finish?
The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens – but then even Dickens couldn’t finish it, sadly. He died of what was then called apoplexy when he was half-way through. 

Your Covid comfort read?

Small Things Like These, by Claire Keegan, for the nucleic control of the sentences. You’d nearly faint with the delicacy and the sadness of it. But mastery is a great tonic. 

The book you give as a present?

I sometimes ask new literary friends the simple question, “Do you know the work of the poet Michael Longley?” and if the answer is No, I send them one of his books. And without fail they write back and say, “Thank you, thank you,” and “Who is this genius?” 

The writer who shaped you?

The Irish writer that got into the bloodstream was Samuel Beckett, and I spent nine years as a young writer to see if I could somehow honour that, but eventually you realise you have to whistle your own rackety birdsong. All those little volumes published by John Calder and Faber, with the covers thicker than the actual text... And I admired Aidan Higgins and Thomas Kinsella, for walking the gang-plank rather than fraternising with the pirates. 

The book you would most like to be remembered for?

When Toby was born, I wrote a poem for him called ‘The Pickening Boy’. I probably won’t be remembered for it but I would like to be remembered for it – even if just by him.


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