Literature’s Latest John Lennon Fantasy
Kevin Barry talks about his new novel, ‘Beatlebone,’ and the various dilemmas that it entailed, including the considerable trouble of getting Lennon’s voice right on the page.
Hard to believe it was mid-November in New York City. Washington Square Park was buttered with sunshine, temperature in the mid-60s, squirrels going mad. It felt like springtime.
The Irish writer Kevin Barry, all ginger hair and facial furze and eye sparkle, sat in a corner of the park drinking coffee and talking about his just-published second novel, Beatlebone—a fictionalized account of a creatively blocked John Lennon traveling, in 1978, to an island he actually owned in Clew Bay, off the west coast of Ireland, not far from Barry’s home in Sligo.
In his mellifluous brogue, Barry’s talk drifted to Irish literature, American writers, YouTube, Don Quixote, the future of the art of storytelling, and Barry’s recent encounter, right here in Washington Square Park, with a man who offered to sell him some heroin. Barry was thrilled to learn that they haven’t succeeded in totally sanitizing the streets of New York. From time to time his nose twitched appreciatively at the “weedwaft” emanating from the raucous clot of card players at a nearby table.
This is a slightly edited transcript of Barry’s conversation with the writer Bill Morris.
Bill Morris: Tell me about the book tour you’re on. Is this something you hate to do?
Kevin Barry: I like to do the readings. I’m a frustrated actor, fundamentally. The big thing about me is that I should’ve been a fuckin’ old provincial stage ham. It’s weird, coz the new book come out just two weeks ago in Ireland and in the U.K. and now here, so I’ve been doing a lot of talking about myself. And I’m sick of the sound of myself. I’m sick of the sight of myself. I’m sick of the fuckin’ con-cept of myself (laughs). It’s no fuckin’ hardship, really.
A wise man told me that writers always bitch about having to go on book tours, but the only thing worse than going on a book tour is…
Not going. Right. It has belatedly struck me that it’s a very good idea for me and for other writers to get out of the fuckin’ house as much as possible. My first book of stories (There Are Little Kingdoms) come out in 2007, and at readings and events you get asked, “Where do the stories come from?” And I found myself developing this very fuckin’ eloquent answer, all about “Hiberno-English” and “found dialog.” One day I was delivering this and sounding totally convincing and I thought, “It’s total bollocks, complete shite.” Actually, every story and everything I’ve written starts with a place, with a location—and it’s always some reverberation, some vibration that’s given off by a place and sparks something. And the unconscious back there says, “OK.” But place is always the beginning.
Have you read E.L. Doctorow by any chance?
Ragtime is the one I remember vividly.
Reason I ask is because that book had an influence on a lot of writers. Colum McCann, the Irish writer now living in New York, said years ago that writers who use real historical figures in their fiction are guilty of a “failure of imagination,” and that’s a quote. Then all of a sudden he’s writing fiction about Rudolf Nureyev, and Philippe Petit’s walk between the Twin Towers, and Frederick Douglass. And he said, “Well, I’ve changed,” which is his right. In your earlier books—the story collection Dark Lies the Island and the novel City of Bohane (winner of the IMPAC Dublin Award)—all the characters came from your imagination. There are fictional civil servants, career criminals, pub rats, gangsters, sweet old aunties who snatch children. Now suddenly, in Beatlebone, we have John Lennon front and center. How did he come into the house?
It was a total surprise to me, man. I live in County Sligo, so County Mayo is right next door. I’d been cycling around Clew Bay there for about seven or eight years, and I had this little factoid of weird pop-cultural information that John Lennon used to own one of those islands in the bay. It was a fact. He owned Dorinish Island. Every time I cycled by, I wondered: which one was it? I started doing—research would be too fine a term for it, really, a little bit of Googling—and I didn’t know what I was up to. I thought maybe I’d do a little radio documentary or something like that, or maybe I’d write a little essay. And then I found myself referring to it in a short story, which was the title story in Dark Lies the Island. And then one day, I think shortly before Bohane came out, I was subconsciously flipping around for a novel idea. I usually collapse about four in the afternoon in a drooling fit onto the couch—the sugars or something give out—and it suddenly went off: “Oh, fuck, I’m going to try it as a novel, aren’t I?” A terrifying realization because he’s such an iconic figure—and the feeling I get out around there, this kind of eeriness, this kind of strange haunted reverberation. I mean, the fuckin’ Atlantic is a really weird thing to grow up right beside.
In Beatlebone, John Lennon and Cornelius O’Grady are walking through a field that gives them a sense of elation, a patch of happiness. In another place it could be terror, or blackness. For you, places have power.
Human feeling seeps out of humans and goes into the soil. Every street corner around here has its own reverberation or vibration from what’s gone on there over the years and over the decades and over the centuries. And I think writers and artists and musicians and creative people can tune in to it. There’s a great Irish philosopher named John Moriarty who died a couple of years ago, and he talked about happy fields and sad fields. Walk into a field and there’s something that was left behind. I think that’s actually what I do. If I have anything that resembles a method, it’s that I can identify a place that’s the start of everything I’ve written. You mentioned the story about the child-snatching ladies.
“Ernestine and Kit” (from Dark Lies the Island).
I was driving around County Sligo with my wife one day. Beautiful day, one of those really gorgeous rare June days. And this little car passes us, two beautiful little ladies, silver hair. They waved and I just looked at them and it immediately came into my mind that they’re out to fuckin’ snatch a child. (Laughs.) I don’t know what’s wrong with me. The next morning I started the story. It was the place again. It was so perfect they had to be up to something horrendous.
There are a couple of sentences from Beatlebone I’d like to read to you, and maybe you can tell me a little bit about how those sentences came to be.
Here’s one: “There is a hefty chap with a voice that sounds like gravel in a bean can, and he has only the one ear.”
That’s from the second section of the novel, and it wrote itself easiest of all the parts. I wrote it in about a week, in Montreal. The book took nearly four years—I thought it was going to be six months, glorious prose, off we go, six months in and out. It was so just hard to get a voice for John Lennon that was in any way believable.
Did you listen to audio tapes of him?
I watched a lot of clips on YouTube, just to get the flow of it right. And he’s very tricky because he’s very capricious in his moods—he’s goes from very sloppy to very spiky very quickly inside a sentence. To get that on the page is difficult.
But the bean can, and the badger taking the chap’s ear off.
What I’m always looking for is material that generates intensity in the sentences. And very often with me it’s that comic intensity. It was when Cornelius stepped forward and became an important character in the book. When John had a sidekick it turned into the most old-fashioned novel on the planet—it’s Don Quixote tilting at windmills with his reality-instructor sidekick. As soon as I had that, it started working.
To go back to the sentence—did that just pop out whole, or did you polish it over and over?
I reworked that section very very very little, had a draft of that section inside a week. Compared to some parts of the book, like the dialogues with John and Cornelius that are the engine that keep the book’s motor running—those went through 80, 90, a hundred drafts. When you do those long stretches of dialogue, it has to be very airy and natural and light on the page. But the amount of fuckin’ heavy-lifting work that’s required to get that lightness!
Have you ever met a man who had an ear torn off by a badger?
Here’s another sentence: “He has tiny yellowish pisshole-in-the-snow-type eyes.”
“Pisshole-in-the-snow” is definitely a steal from somewhere.
Do you know Paul Murray’s writing?
I do. I know Paul. Skippy Dies and The Mark and the Void.
I read an interview with him recently and I’d like to read a quote to you. It’s about Irish literature: “I think literature is not especially important to Ireland… I mean, there are extracts of Ulysses on the seats in Aer Lingus jets. But you have to wonder what it means, other than that you can sit there and fart into this great work of Modernist literature on your flight to New York.”
I totally agree about the way Irish writing has been brought into what you might call the heritage industry. It’s essentially been made a part of the tourist business in Ireland. There was a wonderful glorious era where if an Irish politician saw a writer coming on the streets of Dublin, he would fuckin’ run across the street and around the corner. That seems to me the ideal relationship between writers and the state. (Laughs.) They figured out that writing was one of the things we had a world-wide reputation for, which, by the way, was built on the work of three writers: Joyce, Beckett, and Flann O’Brien. Almost entirely the reputation of Irish literature, outside of poetry at least, is built on those three guys. If there’s one thing that unites the three of them, it’s that they were completely prepared to go fuckin’ nuts on the page, to experiment, to go beyond the perceived barriers of what you were supposed to do. As Paul Murray said, getting sucked into this cultural heritage industry is kind of beautifully ridiculous.
How about the Irish public as readers?
Actually, when you go outside the country you realize that Ireland is still pretty literary, yeah, people do read. People show up at book events. People buy a lot of books for a small country. But like anyplace else, the online stuff is having a huge effect on us and we’re becoming very finicky and impatient readers. And that fuckin’ sensation which I really hate—and I have it as much as anyone—when you’re in bed and there are 15 amazing books beside the bed and you’re sitting there looking into your fuckin’ phone. It’s definitely changing the way we’re going to be telling stories.
How will it change?
I think books can still slow down our mad, crazed lily-brains. I’m terrified because people always tell me my books have pace and the pages turn quite quickly—when I’m trying to do the opposite. But I do think that the human voice is the last thing that can arrest us, and this is why podcasts have exploded. It’s the one thing that can slow down that flitty Internet brain thing. I don’t say it from this remove—I’m as demented as anyone else. It’s a weird time for storytelling, but storytelling is not going to go anywhere. We need it to give shape and meaning to our lives. If I were to make a bet on it, I would think it’s going to be an increasingly kind of live experience, an oral thing. I think we still like to be told stories.
Orally? To hear them?
Do you do audio books?
I recorded the audio book for Beatlebone over the summer and it struck me that it’s the ultimate expression for this project. It’s meant to be spoken. I also think there are two types of readers: there are readers who read in images, which is perfectly fine; and I think there are readers who read with their ears, who are hearing it as they go along. And I think it’s those readers who go with my stuff moreso. Neither is right or wrong, but I definitely do think there are two types of readers.
Do you read everything you write out loud?
I do, at the penultimate draft stage. When I think it’s nearly there I print it out and read it aloud. That’s such a precise tool. You get all the evasions, when you’re kind of shirking away from something. What’s really interesting when I read back over something is the parts that embarrass me. When you’re a younger writer, you scribble them out. But I’m increasingly inclined to scribble out everything else. The embarrassing bits, that’s where it gets true. That’s where the real emotion is coming out. Very often it’s something you’ve been searching around for years and you’ve been afraid to go after. It’s one thing I say to anyone who’s trying to write, especially younger writers or emerging writers: pay very close attention when you’re embarrassed by your work, coz that’s the good bits, when you’re kind of squirming. That’s one of the reasons I like to write first thing in the morning, when I’m half-conscious, when I haven’t even had the coffee yet, because you’re not afraid to embarrass yourself, you’ll put any old shit down on the page. And you get something then. As you wake up and become more conscious, at some level we’re all trying to sound cool on the page. When your guard’s down, that’s when you get the stuff.
As you mentioned, Beatlebone is a quest, a Quixote type story. John Lennon is blocked and he’s trying to break out of it and get his creative mojo back. This is all your invention?
We do know from the facts that 1976, ’77, ’78 was quite a happy period in his life. His marriage is back together. His visa difficulties with the U.S. have ended. He’s got a new kid, he’s off the booze, he’s off the drugs, he’s baking lots of bread—and he wasn’t recording any records. So where I came in was to say he’s too fuckin’ happy, so I had to put him out on his ghostly island.
Happiness, what a scourge.
What a scourge. There’s that great quote, I think it could be originally from Iris Murdoch: “Happiness writes white.” It doesn’t show up on the page. All your stuff comes from your dark places, and that’s where you have to go.
One of my favorite people in the book is Margaret, the 112-year-old woman who comes in briefly at the end.
Have I got a story for you about Margaret!
Let’s hear it.
Basically, this year the book was going out the door at 3 o’clock on Friday, May 15. My editor said, “You’ve had enough fuckin’ time, we’re putting it out.” At 10:30 that morning I wrote a new character into the book—Margaret. I went into the house from the shed and I said to my wife, Olivia, I said, “I just put a new character into the book.” She said, “No fuckin’ way!” So she came out and read the two pages and said, “Oh, she’s fine.” It’s amazing that late on in a book you can make big improvements quickly.
Let me read what Margaret says to John: “But no harm sometimes to have that bit of arrogance in yourself.” Every artist needs some of that, don’t you think?
You can only proceed with a modicum of arrogance. To write a book, to make a painting, it’s an expression of ego, really. “I have something to say, fuckin’ listen to me.” There’s no way to go into it without having some arrogance. All of writing is a confidence trick—giving yourself the confidence each time to say, “Yeah, I’m going to get away with this, I’ve got something to say here.” I’m always looking for occurrences of sympathetic magic around the edges of a project. I had a beauty last Christmas. I had pages laid out on the floor. I went into the house to make coffee, and when I came back, a fuckin’ black lizard was walking across the pages. So I immediately sat down and wrote a black lizard into the text—I put him on a brandy bottle they’re drinking at the Amethyst Hotel.
Don’t you think it’s the writer’s first job to make the reader turn the pages?
Oh, completely. I call it thumb, where you keep going like that (mimes thumbing the pages of a book). That’s why I love writers like James Ellroy…
And Elmore Leonard?
I go back to Glitz and Stick and books like that just for the sheer wicked pleasure of that dialogue.
Tell me some other American writers who talk to you.
In my late teens I had a big Flannery O’Connor deal come on for a while. There’s a lot in common between the American South and the Irish West—lots of resonances there. In my twenties I wanted to be the next great American Jewish novelist, I was going to be the next Saul Bellow. Didn’t work out, but I love his mix of high and low, you know, the low life on the Chicago streets and the go-for-it, brilliant language. The first one that really got me was Humboldt’s Gift.
I remember vividly in the summer of 1997 I was on a trip to Italy and I was in Verona—and I fuckin’ hate going on holidays, enforced pleasure time—but I had Underworld by Don DeLillo with me, and I got a glimpse of the mountain.
Did you read Libra?
You know what my favorite thing about Libra is? It’s not the portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald—it’s the portrait of Jack Ruby. A speed freak in Dallas. People don’t comment enough on DeLillo’s ear for dialogue. When people call dialogue “natural,” there’s no such thing. For me, the dialogue is what gets the drafts. If a stretch of dialogue sounds good to you twice, it’s not necessarily good. If it sounds good seven times, it’s not necessarily good. If on the ninetieth time it’s still good, you’re ready to go.
Now I have to ask you the inevitable stupid question: What are you working on now?
I set all these weird occult dates for myself, so on the winter solstice I’ll be returning to the city of Bohane. It’s not necessarily going to be a trilogy, but there was always going to be a second book.
Do you think you’ll ever leave the west of Ireland in your writing?
It’s weird, somebody asked me that recently. Every year in the Irish winter, when it’s miserable and gray, I go to Spain for blue skies and a bit of light. For fifteen years I’ve been trying to write a short story set in Spain. Finally this year one kind of worked out. It’s the first thing I’ve set outside of England or Ireland. It’s called “Extremadura Until Nightfall.” I think it works. I’ll send it to you.
Do you have a job besides your writing?
No. By complete accident I followed the best-ever writing advice from Annie Dillard: Keep your overhead low. That’s all you need to know. And by complete coincidence we bought a really cheap house in a Sligo swamp, and I can get away with just writing.
Nice work if you can get it, hunh?