Sebastian Barry on Being Nominated for the Booker

History and the creative contest continue to inspire the Dublin author

Sebastian Barry is sitting in a quiet room at his publisher’s headquarters. News has just come in that On Canaan’s Side, Barry’s latest novel, has gone to number one in the Irish fiction best sellers list. Not to mention its Booker Prize nomination, Barry's third to date. 

'I feel f**ing great about the Booker nomination,' Barry declares unashamedly, before asking, 'Am I allowed to say that?'

Interestingly, given that he is now in competition with 12 other writers for the 2011 Booker title, in conversation Barry talks about the act of writing as if it is a contest too. He compares the process to 'waiting to catch the fish by the bank of the river' and 'getting ready for the next fight'.

On Canaan's Side is certainly a heavyweight tome. The story is narrated by Lilly Bere, an elderly Irish woman now living in the United States. Forced to 'flee in the 20s to America from Ireland under a death sentence from the IRA,' says Barry, Lilly looks back at the tumultuous events of her traumatic life as she mourns the death of her grandson, Bill.

The novel travels through Wicklow, Dublin, Chicago, Cleveland, Washington, and New York, recalling historical events such as the War of Independence in Ireland, both World Wars, and Vietnam, right up to the Gulf War.

Lily, all the while, is 'dwelling on things I love, even if the measure of tragedy is stitched into everything'.

Elderly female protagonists (themselves long-term immigrants) recalling past experiences is becoming something of a fad in Irish writing these days.

Given the recent sales figures for novels such as Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín and Ghost Light by Joseph O'Connor, it is clear that the reading public seem to enjoy stories of the Irish famine and exodus. But what does Barry put this continuing fascination amongst writers down to?

'Well, it’s a kind of celestial accident when writers make moves in certain directions,' he says. 'The reasons for it? There is something in the zeitgeist, something in the air.

'I think there has been a reclaiming of America as an extension of Ireland [in Irish fiction]. If you consider that there are 40 million people with Irish decent in America... It’s not so much about going after that history, but more like bringing it home to talk about this other country that is – I wouldn’t say part of Ireland, that would be crass – but very important to the Irish imagination.'

Drawing upon the past is something that Barry has been doing in his novels, plays and poetry for the last 30 odd years. Born in Dublin in 1955 – a time of great sociological change throughout Ireland – the present, says Barry, is not something that interests him as a writer.

'The present is a curious beast for me. People forget that Dickens wasn’t writing about the England around him, he was writing about the England of the 1830s. Similarly, Shakespeare’s work was all written in archaic language to give the idea of ancientness. The past is invisible to us...'

Barry’s books tend to take an alternative view of history, and he brags that he was a 'revisionist' writer before that word was even invented. Irish history in the previous century is something that was constructed by the state in order to create mythologies, according to the 56-year old, rather than recalling the events that actually happened.

'The thing about recent Irish history is that De Valera very consciously created a history for Ireland,' Barry argues, 'to consolidate, to elucidate, to give the new state a mythology. It wasn’t just Yeats and other writers in the Anglo-Irish revival who helped create this mythology of Ireland; it was also the historians who were mobilised to do that.

'It was a very valuable history for its day, and it read the whole of the 19th century as a series of resistances to British rule. But if you asked someone who had lived in the 1890s to write a history of Ireland, unless they were radical or whatever, it’s not how they would have written about the century at all.'

Like other novelists such as Jonathan Franzen, or even fellow Irish writer John McGahern, Barry digs deep into the secrets of his own extended family in his fiction. He does this, he explains, only to find stories that have lay dormant. It is the writer's prerogative to pry open the lid and expose the secrets of the previous generation.

'I think our ancestors have so much to say, but some people, like my grandfather, were so deeply embedded in secrecy. There was so much in his life that he didn’t want brought into the light. The Chinese know all about respecting the old, and I think we used to do that in Ireland, especially when families lived closer together.

'I’m also aware of the fact that there can be enormous disruptions in families that can be left unspoken, and therefore the effects are felt, but the origin of the effect is not known. Because, after all, families tell each other secrets sometimes, and they are often the most interesting things about the family, or the most important thing, in a way.'

Before Barry gets ready for his first reading since On Canaan's Side went top of the best sellers list, I ask him about this obsession the Irish writer has for attaining the perfect sentence. Looking out into the bright evening sunlight, Barry ponders before responding.

'If there is such a thing as an Irish mind,' he muses, 'which is no doubt a gentle and murderous one, there is something in it that can only work itself out through language.'

On Canaan's Side is available now, published by Faber & Faber. The short list for the 2011 Man Booker Prize is will announced on September 6. Watch video of Barry reading from On Canaan's Side on the Amazon website.