Published:  01:48 AM, 26 August 2017 Last Update: 01:50 AM, 26 August 2017

An interview with Sebastian Barry

An interview with Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry is an Irish playwright, novelist and poet. He is noted for his dense literary writing style and is considered one of Ireland's finest writers. Barry's literary career began in poetry before he began writing plays and novels. He has twice been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for his novels A Long Long Way (2005) and The Secret Scripture (2008), the latter of which won the 2008 Costa Book of the Year and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. His 2011 novel On Canaan's Side was longlisted for the Booker. In January 2017, Barry was awarded the Costa Book of the Year prize for Days Without End, hence becoming the first novelist to win the prestigious prize twice. On behalf of American radio talk show Fresh Air, producer Sam Briger interviewed him.

Sam Briger: welcome to Fresh Air. Sebastian Barry: I'm delighted to talk to you. Briger: Your book 'Days Without End' deals with the American expansion West, the Indian Wars and the Civil War. Why did you want to take on such a formative part of American history?

Barry: Well, the whole adventure of these seven books, indeed, has been to try and go and find, if only in the imagination, these bits and bobs of my family, the people who weren't talked about, the people who - around whom a silence fell, whether for political reasons or because they went so far and never came home. And this was one person that my grandfather told me about when we shared a - a bed and a room when we were - when I was small in the 1960s in Ireland. And he'd tell me these wonderful stories, and this was a story he couldn't tell because all he knew about it was that a great-uncle of his had been at the Indian Wars. So that's where that started.

And I've been thinking about that for - well, nigh on 50 years. And what that means - and when I first heard it, I thought, well, I know what that means aged 8 because I've been to all the cowboy films up in the Adelphi cinema in Dun Laoghaire. So surely I do know what he's talking about. And that was a very exciting idea.

But later, you wonder then about the sadness and the sorrow - historical sorrow of an Irish person, himself essentially a native person, an aboriginal person, by a great trauma having to go to America, joining an Army that was engaged in the destruction, erasure and removal of a people, the Native American people, not unlike himself. So that was one of the things. So my task was to follow, and in this instance, follow a person like that to America. But I have to say, it was a joyful undertaking.

Briger: And Thomas joins the Army. Was it common for Irish immigrants then to join the Army? Barry: It was almost absurdly common. I mean, not only then in the 1840s. But I was quite shocked just because I didn't know it. And maybe it is to some degree shocking, that just later on - because, you know, after - we talked about the million who died in the famine, the million who left. But in the next 20 years, another 2 million left, many, many, many, many hundreds of thousands for America. I mean, hundreds of thousands - the numbers are just staggering.

Briger: His first job, though, is to fight in the Indian Wars in the West. And...
Barry: Yes.

Briger: I was surprised at how much famine there is in the novel. I mean...
Barry: Yes.

Briger: ...Not just in Ireland, but in the West among both the Native Americans and the soldiers. And then there's this haunting scene in a prisoner of war camp in the South during the Civil War where both the Union captives and their guards are all starving.

Barry: Yeah. They, you know - some of these - I mean, if I had a private title it'd be "Book Of Revelations" for this book because all that astonished me. You know, as Irish people only reading Irish history, sometimes we think we have the copyright on hunger. And, you know - and in a way rightly so, but it is an illusion. I mean, we have the history of Bengal. We have the history of China. We have all these other histories of hunger.

But even in America, do you know if you were a group of Sioux people who decided to submit to the government and try and do what they were being asked to do, you know, first of all - the rations given to you were disgusting more often than not. But if they didn't arrive, you and your people were going to start starving out there on the plains. And that - you know, the word hunger - because Thomas has lost his family who have died on the stone floor of his house. His mother and his sister and his father have all died of hunger. So he knows what hunger is, so he notices hunger. And I was noticing hunger, as you say.

Briger: As you said before, Thomas McNulty's based on one of your ancestors. He's - and he said he's not the first ancestor you've written about. Why do you think you keep returning to the history of your family? Barry: I think it started in childhood where, you know, I was a little boy in love with my family and family members, my great aunt Annie, my - that I wrote a little novel about called "Annie Dunne" and my grandfathers (unintelligible). He was the - he was a major in the British army during the Second World War.

He has a book called "The Temporary Gentleman." And my other grandfather and - who was a painter and nationalist who came out in 1916. So, you know, these were two grandfathers completely at odds historically in Ireland. But I loved - they were at odds, but I loved them equally. I mean, I loved them madly. I mean, I was in love with these people, and I wanted more of them.

Briger: Well, one of the things that sustains him through all this carnage, and one of the most enduring parts of the book is the relationship that Thomas McNulty has with his lover handsome John Cole. And, you know, they maintain this clandestine romance as soldiers in the Army, and then they have a domestic life together. You know, I found it interesting that you decided to write a book about a gay relationship in an era where even that phrase would have been a foreign one. I mean, did you...
Barry: Exactly.

Briger: ...Did you have to research about what it was like to be gay in America in the 1800s? Are there any primary sources about that? Do you have to sort of read between the lines of diaries? Barry: Between the lines and maybe 10 feet under them because understandably it's not in the record. You know, I mean, it's often said that if you look for Jesus Christ in the historical record, there's two vague mentions of him there. That's it.

And for, you know - for living a life that is gay, as you say a word that didn't exist, when your whole purpose is to be at least discreet and protect each other and watch out for dangers, it's not going to be written down somewhere unless things go badly wrong. At the same time, there's a certain amount of record. And, you know, you read the - for instance, I wrote a play about Hans Christian Andersen - was sort of the same period in Denmark. Hans Christian Andersen - I mean, Hans Christian Andersen may have died a virgin, but he was certainly incredibly in love with a young Danish actor. And that's recorded, and he was in love with the son of his patron, Collin, and was distraught and almost self-destructive when he was turned down by this man.

Briger: Right. They adopt a Sioux girl and have a family together. That's, as you say, very heartening. You mention cross-dressing, and that's something that plays a part in this book. The first instance of it is Thomas McNulty and his friend John Cole are teenagers, and they're starving. And they're trying to find work, and they come across a new saloon that's advertising for clean boys. What is the saloon looking for?

Barry: And as John Cole says, well, we fulfill half of that requirement. Briger: (Laughter). Barry: And in they go, and it turns out Mr. Noon (ph), the saloon owner is just looking for boys who he can put the dresses on who will then very - chaperoned - in a very chaperoned fashion be available to the minors for dancing.

Briger: Is this based on anything historical? Barry: I certainly remember photographs of - I'm sure you're familiar with them - of men dancing with each other in the West because obviously in saloons, you know - because there's no women.

And one particular photograph I saw there were two or three boys doing the dancing, you know, with the men. I was a little bit - I mean, as a modern father, of course, I was a little bit alarmed by that. I mean, but there's no point being modern - modernly - if that's a word - alarmed by the past because it's just - it is a different country. Whether or not I read that it was actually a possible employment - but to my way of thinking, you see - I mean, this nascent America predicated upon such incredible violence, but also the possibility

You know, the - my way of thinking if there wasn't a one instance of two boys getting a job dressing as girls to dance with minors in a town like Daggsville, I'd be very surprised with the great cornucopia of work in America. I mean, it might have died a death hours later, but I'm sure it must have happened.

The interview was appeared in

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