The Utter Ambivalence of Connection, an interview with Colin Barrett, author of Young Skins
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
by Dan Sheehan
My town is nowhere you’ve been, but you know its ilk. A roundabout off a national road, an industrial estate, a five-screen Cineplex, a century of pubs packed inside the square mile of the town’s limits. The Atlantic is near; the gnarled jawbone of the coastline with its gull-infested promontories is near. Summer evenings, and in the manure-scented pastures of the satellite parishes the Zen bovines lift their heads to contemplate the V8 howls of the boy racers tearing through the back lanes.
So begins Colin Barrett’s mesmerizing debut collection of stories, Young Skins, released to near-universal critical acclaim and, in the months between its Irish and US publication, a raft of major literary awards. His brutal, linguistically stylish tales of Sisyphean young men, voluntarily trapped within the confines of the fictional west of Ireland town of Glanbeigh, have elicited high praise from Colum McCann, Anne Enright, Colm Toibin, Sam Lipsyte, and The New York Times. I sat down with Colin on a warm evening in late March in the Bowery’s Swift Hibernian Lounge to discuss the author’s love of language, the intriguing open-endedness of the short story form, and the perils of writing what you know.
Dan Sheehan: In the last twelve months or so you’ve gone from being published in Ireland with The Stinging Fly Press to winning the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, the Guardian First Book Award, and the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award. You’ve also had a story in the New Yorker and a rave review in The New York Times. That’s a pretty crazy year. How’s it’s been for you?
Colin Barrett: Well it’s been very good. I’ve nothing to compare it to obviously, but initially I was just very proud of myself for writing the collection and getting it published in Ireland. I am aware that there’s been an unusual amount of attention for a first book, especially for a book of short stories. So it’s been busy. It’s been hectic. It’s been strange. It’s been almost like having an actual job again purely in the context of the volume of emails that come in, which hasn’t been this crazy since I was back working in Vodafone as a Quality Service Operative. You end up inadvertently being rude to people because you forget to get back to them.
DS: I think the old ‘Out of Office’ email is your best friend there.
CB: I don’t have one but I really should set it up. “I’m just stepping outside and I may be gone for some time.”
DS: “Back in five minutes or two weeks, depending on how I feel.”
CB: That might work.
DS: Is there something in your depiction of this small fictional town [Glanbeigh], aside from the quality of writing and storytelling itself, that gets to people in some universal way? Young Skins has been receiving fantastic reviews from within Ireland but also from the UK, the US, the Netherlands and beyond. Do you think you’ve hit upon something that’s ubiquitous to small towns or the shadows of small towns, something that people can feel in their own communities in isolated parts of whatever country they may be from?
I honestly didn’t think anyone would get it. Or to be more specific, I thought the only people who would get it would be the people from the area where I live and that they wouldn’t like me for it.
CB: It would seem so, but it certainly wasn’t a conscious, premeditated thing. In one of Martin Amis’ books, The Information, there’s a bunch of prominent authors in the same room together, all throwing each other catty looks, and Amis’ narrator, who is a failed literary novelist, says that the reason they’re all so envious and competitive with one another is that they’re all after what there’s only one of, The Universal. This idea that if you can somehow package your work accessibly it’ll be the key to widespread recognition. And of course the reality is you have absolutely no idea you’re doing something like that at the time. I thought this book couldn’t be more niche. I mean, it’s six short stories and a novella. I jokingly said at a festival recently that this is what all publishers and agents want, they want a short story collection with a novella thrown in. Not everyone laughed, some of them were writing it down sincerely going “this is it! Forget my YA trilogy.” So I certainly couldn’t have planned in advance that people would get it, especially as it is set in the west of Ireland, written with a heavy vernacular influence, a dialect at work. I’ve always liked that kind of voice writing, or regional writing as it’s called somewhat disparagingly over here. Language with an accent, language with a distinctive cadence. I honestly didn’t think anyone would get it. Or to be more specific, I thought the only people who would get it would be the people from the area where I live and that they wouldn’t like me for it.
DS: That you’d be resented by the only people who would find it intelligible.
CB: Exactly, resentment would inevitably entail some recognition. And yet the opposite seems to have happened. Even just anecdotally on twitter you get someone from say, the inner city in London, who says “yes, this is exactly what it was like being a teenager when I was growing up,” and over here [in the US] it seems to have also had some sort of resonance. But you can never really know in advance. All I focused on was the language and that was the lens through which I looked at how it would be perceived. Not that I didn’t consider the plots themselves but I was just so language-focused in the writing. I hoped the book would be positively received, but the idea of it impacting in other ways — beyond hopefully having some kind of literary competence — of actually resonating as stories, that’s been a very pleasant surprise. And I don’t know how I did it, if I did it.
DS: Staying with your use of language, I remember once reading a blurb for Wells Tower’s short story collection [Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned] which I thought could easily be applied to your own work. It said of the stories, “they contain sentences so good you want to cut them out and pin them to the wall.” Is there a particular type of punch you want to land when you approach sentence construction?
CB: There’s definitely an effect you’re going for, and you’re going for it at that level, sentence by sentence. I believe other writers when they tell me they perhaps don’t approach it that way — that they work at a paragraph or even a chapter level — but it’s the only way I do it. It’s the distance I want each unit of my concentration to be trained on at any one time. Sentence by sentence. Not to get all John Banville about it, but he said that if he gets two good sentences written a day then he’s happy. I produce a little bit more than that but if I keep two of the sentences I write each day then I’m pretty happy. I certainly don’t beat myself up about timelines or word counts or anything like that. It can take me a long time to get started on a story, or to get it to go somewhere; it can be the kind of extensive period of time that would probably discourage a lot of other people who would assume they must be doing something wrong. It could take a month to get the first three paragraphs right, but that’s because you’re trying to find the particular register and cadence that you’re going to tune the rest of the story to. I’ve just always loved that kind of writing. You mentioned Wells Tower and I really like that collection. Kevin Barry was doing it in Ireland with There Are Little Kingdoms and that was a book that meant a lot to me. It was incidental that he was Irish, but what he was doing with language was definitely something I wanted to emulate.
DS: It seems to me, with regard to both yourself and Kevin Barry, that even without the Irish colloquialisms and the vernacular people seem so entranced by, you guys could successfully apply that focus on the sound of the sentence and its visceral impact to other voices in other communities that have their own particular brand of jargon.
CB: Right. Anything that’s not formal or correct English. Anything that’s a deviation or a deformation of that, I’m happy with.
DS: Formal or correct English can get a little bit boring anyway.
I use big words as well as the vernacular and I like to blend the two shamelessly, and that’s what writing is for, that’s what literature is for, in my opinion anyway.
CB: It can. I mean, I can end up sounding a bit zealous about this to the point of coming across as censorious of other styles, and it’s not really that. There just happens to be a style I’m interesting in writing in. There are some wonderfully written books that I love which utilise very minimalistic, transparent language, but nonetheless, when I try to do that, it sucks, and I’m just not intrinsically as excited by it. I’m always looking for an energy in my writing so that it comes through with that certain kind of textural raggedyness. Not being afraid to mix up registers, you know? I use big words as well as the vernacular and I like to blend the two shamelessly, and that’s what writing is for, that’s what literature is for, in my opinion anyway.
DS: And I think that works. For me at least, the leaps in and out of different registers didn’t feel jarring or show-offy. When the writing moves back and forth from the highfalutin interior language of one character, to the guttural, grunting dialogue of another, the transition is admirably seamless. Sometimes when this transition doesn’t quite work in a piece of writing, when, say, too much emphasis is placed on the former, while it can still be impressive technically, the organic quality of the scene is lost. Do you avoid that trap naturally in the writing process or is it a case of drifting and having to consciously pull yourself back?
CB: Well my earlier drafts, as well as being unintelligible, are usually quite dense and I probably actually dilute the language a bit as I get closer to the finished product, while still wanting to keep a certain kind of textural density. I’m really happy that it doesn’t come off as too cerebral or unsuccessful in its welding of two styles that normally would not mesh. I’m glad that it seems organic and credible. I was writing for years before I wrote these stories so it was one of those situations where, for a long time, I didn’t want to write about where I was from. I just didn’t think that there was anything special or interesting about where I lived, that it had any intrinsic value or merit. I couldn’t see it at the time.
DS: You’re from Mayo [a county in the west of Ireland] originally?
CB: Yes. I’ve been away for about twelve years now. I go back regularly but I haven’t lived there for twelve years, and I think it took a while, being away and coming back, before it clicked in my head and I realized that yes, you’re allowed write about small town, so-called “marginal” things and that you can still get everything you want, story-wise and emotion-wise, as well as thematically and linguistically. And that realization comes from just reading. You encounter books that blow your head off and that you want to emulate, so you see how you can adapt your own material to that. It took a lot of work and a lot of practice to make it sound credible and even then I wasn’t one hundred per cent sure. I had a great editor [Declan Meade at The Stinging Fly] whose taste I intrinsically trusted so I thought, well, if it can get past him it mustn’t be too bad. Even now, you’re still never one hundred per cent sure that it won’t be interpreted as ringing false or dismissed as over-written.
DS: And then on top of all that you’ve got a community in which you live whose opinions of your depictions you have to worry about.
CB: Pitchforks at the ready.
DS: One thing I noticed, both throughout the collection and in your recent New Yorker short story [“The Ways”], is that while none of your characters could be considered heroes in the traditional mould, there is something heroic in their unflinching loyalty to one another, whether it’s Arm and Dympna in “Calm With Horses,” Tug and Jimmy in “The Clancy Kid,” or the trio of orphans in “The Ways.” Was it a conscious decision to make loyalty the virtue that sustains them through what could be deemed a purgatorial existence, or did you see it more as a shackle that prevents them from escaping this world, this stagnant way of living?
CB: I guess, and this could be me talking after the fact, one of the things the stories are about is the utter ambivalence of connection. It wasn’t a premeditated thing but I saw it emerge and recur as I was writing. There’s no conventional nuclear family structure; nonetheless, very few of the characters are truly isolated. They may be alienated from the people around them, but they are still part of some sort of improvised family unit, there’s still a partial familial structure in place. They are embedded in the community, for better or worse, and I think that’s an ambivalent thing. I wanted to write about characters who stayed. The ones who were born on this little patch of earth and live there at a time when there are all these potential options for where you can go and what you can do, and yet decide to eschew most of those options. They decide to just not do anything. Or they decide to do something within a very circumscribed area and live a very circumscribed life. That’s what I was intrigued by: that people would decide to wall themselves up in what they have already known. I thought of some of these characters as being almost like the luddite monks who make the decision to hide themselves away in the seminary and live this austere, closed-off existence. In a non-religious sense of course, we are talking about bouncers and petrol station attendants here. But it’s the idea of asking what consolations do you get by deciding to reject everything else that’s out there and sticking to what you know to the point where you can’t function anywhere else. And I think it’s probably true; if you don’t get out by a certain point, you never will.
DS: And yet these characters, they’re lonely and they’re frustrated and they’re longing for something more, but they’re not, for the most part, despairing. They’re quite stoic about their lot. I’m thinking in particular of Bat [the embattled protagonist of “Stand Your Skin”] who has been dealt a pretty rough hand by all accounts but still ticks along and does what he feels he ought even though he has every reason to rage against all those around him and abandon this place.
CB: Bat is one of the more extreme examples, and he was very interesting to write. I just think of him as a good guy really. He is a good guy, he wouldn’t hurt anybody. It’s the mystery of this kind of a character, that ability to just forebear things, silently and stoically, and I wrote the story trying to push him to the point where maybe he would react. To me, some of these characters really are enigmas. Getting back to what I was saying earlier, I grew up as a teenager in a small town, and I couldn’t wait to leave. I left, went to college, moved somewhere relatively cosmopolitan, so I was one of the “leavers,” and for years I didn’t think much about the people who didn’t leave. But then I started to, and I realized that they were the ones I wanted to write about. I didn’t want to write about characters coming back. I didn’t want that outside perspective. I wanted to keep things closed in, tight, to really try and engage with these characters at their level and treat their lives and their perspectives seriously. I was mindful of not wanting to patronise or condescend, or to simply have them there to didactically hammer home a point to the reader. I wanted to leave a little thread of hopefulness in most of the stories, an idea that maybe these characters are getting something out of their lives, even if it’s not articulated at the surface level of the story. When I think of Bat in “Stand Your Skin,” which is probably my favourite story in the collection, things don’t exactly end badly for that character. He’s still fine.
DS: It’s not hopeless.
CB: No, it’s not hopeless. We just step out. It’s interesting that some readers will look at it as an inevitable tragedy just being postponed, but I don’t know that it is. He’s surviving.
DS: It struck me when I read it that the easier thing to do and perhaps the expected thing to do would be to have some grand gesture at the close, maybe a suicide, which ninety-nine times out of one hundred is not the reality. But people want closure, they want to close the loop on these grotesques, and you don’t do that.
CB: Well closure can be moving, but it also allows you to process what you’ve read. You get catharsis, you get a way out, a way to be moved in a satisfying way rather than being left hanging. That’s what short stories are so great at, and probably a reason why they’ll never be that popular no matter how brilliant they are. They refuse that closure. The open-endedness of them is something I love. You can subject a character, and by extension a reader, to a state, an experience and just not close it off. You’re left disorientated by this lack of closure in a story so it’s maybe more of a challenge than reading a novel or a story that does give you the gratification of a nice, tidy final gesture. It can be tragic but it’s still easier than not having a gesture there at all.
DS: I suppose, if you had done that in these stories, you would have run the risk of dehumanizing your characters. Of telling us that these are simple people whose hard lives are open and closed, and therefore making them more easily digestible for the reader, when they are every bit as complex as the people who have left them behind on this tiny patch of land.
CB: Exactly. I didn’t want to judge them or have them be purely examples of something. That awful idea of being an example of something, economic tragedy or reductive masculinity or whatever. They can be those things, but you want to purposely avoid reducing them to only that. Because if all you want to do is make a statement about those things, just go and write an essay about them. You want to defeat the grand gesture and keep the story alive for the reader. That’s what I love as a reader and maybe every reader isn’t up for that but…tough.
DS: There is a school of thought, which I’m sure you’ve encountered, that says the quality of Irish writing took a dip during the Celtic Tiger years [the period of Irish economic prosperity between 1996 and 2008], that somehow we can’t write as effectively when we’re not in thrall to some manner of misery or stagnation. Do you think a book like this would exist without the recession, without the new wave of Irish emigration, or are these characters who operate outside of that world altogether?
The margins are always the margins.
CB: To me, they would have existed outside of it. I started writing these stories in 2008, when the Celtic Tiger was being violently put down, bludgeoned to death with a shoe you could say, and though I was aware of it, it wouldn’t have consciously fed into the writing at the time. The margins are always the margins. All lot of these characters would have been as equally immune to economic growth as they would be to collapse. These are people who have deliberately disconnected themselves from certain things so they would never have graduated to the level of being able to take advantage of the Celtic Tiger. I just wanted to write about these marginal characters who in any other circumstances would be considered maladjusted in some way, but who are generally able to function where they are, as long as nothing changes.
DS: I suppose maybe we ascribe too much significance to everything that happens now in Ireland in light of the crash. Maybe some things just always were and will continue to be regardless of whether the economy goes up or down.
CB: It’s hard to know. It is interesting though. I suppose, as a reader, from 1996 when I was fourteen up until 2006/07, around the time I read Kevin Barry’s collection [There are Little Kingdoms], there didn’t seem to be that much visible, almost like there was a generation of writers missing or something. I don’t know why exactly they would be. I certainly have noticed since, and this is one direct consequence of the recession, that there are a lot of young, hungry writers in Ireland at the moment. They come out of colleges with no chance of getting a job, but they take that energy and end up getting a lot of writing done at a scarily young age. They’re actually fired up by the apparent lack of opportunities. There’s no temptation to take a nice job with health insurance or buy an apartment you can’t afford. Writing has always had very low overheads.
DS: Are you at liberty to disclose anything about your next project?
CB: It’s a novel. I tried writing several novels, in my twenties, before I began writing short stories, and it’s something I always saw myself doing. I’m in the early stages at the moment and it’s exciting, but it’s also nerve wracking because it feels like I’m starting at the beginning all over again.
DS: It is a very different beast.
CB: Totally different. Short stories and novels, they both need to be well written but that’s about all they have in common! The intensity of your sentences has to be completely different, it has to be distributed in a different way and I’m slowly learning that. I’m not taking it lightly and it hasn’t been a seamless transition, but then again, when I started writing the stories that was a struggle too.
DS: You actually began writing poetry, in the very beginning, is that right? That transition must have been difficult too.
CB: Yeah, I went from trying to write poetry to novels and then to short stories. Poetry probably helped with the short story writing though because poetry is quite close, just in terms of that density and economy of language on the page. The language has to be interesting, it has to be impactful, it has to have layers and nuance and dimensions to it. But you physically don’t have much of it. That impactfulness through brevity, to me makes it a lot closer to short fiction than one might initially think.
DS: I suppose it’s difficult to sustain that kind of intensity of language for very long in a novel without it overwhelming the reader.
Because both novels and short stories have narrative, because they’re both narrative forms, there’s the illusion, or maybe the delusion, that they’re closer than they actually are.
CB: I think you can do it, but you have to be very clever about it. In novels there are different focuses you have to respect. Because both novels and short stories have narrative, because they’re both narrative forms, there’s the illusion, or maybe the delusion, that they’re closer than they actually are. The narrative is very different in short stories. In short stories everything is also working at a more symbolic level, a more figurative level of language than it is in a novel. It’s something that’s very difficult to talk about in a coherent way. When I think of some of my favourite short stories, I think of someone like Chekhov, who is considered the father of a certain kind of template of short story writing. He has a story called “The Horse Thieves” which is this bizarre fever dream of a narrative. It’s just one amazing set-piece/image after another and it has the qualities of a poem. It has this imaginative arc that has so little to do with the imprimaturs of conventional narrative. It just moves from one dream sequence to another, but in a way that is totally non-gratuitous, that is always moving and resonant and says so much more with less. You’d ruin it by trying to make it longer. I suppose as I try to write this novel I’m always wondering “What is it about this story that I can’t express in five thousand words, that I can’t condense down to ten pages? What is it about this story that requires more?” Because if doesn’t really require more than that then it should be a short story. So it’s a total re-orientation of where your head’s at and what you think narrative is.
DS: So would you say that one of the main reasons for writing this novel is that you have a story to tell that can only be told in that particular form?
CB: I’m not a big fan of the idea that there’s a story you have to tell. I suppose I just think of the novel as a different kind of freedom. The short story is one kind of freedom and I’ve worked a lot in it to the point where I probably do need a break, but more than that I think I’m just interested in the other kinds of freedom that the novel allows. Again, the novel is such a bizarre form. We have a popular conception of what it is: a narrative in chronological order; containing rounded, psychologically nuanced characters; more or less realist, and then of course every novel I like is a gross rejection of all those things (laughs) so we’ll see where mine goes. God only knows. I’m learning as I go but I am enjoying the process.
DS: One last question: Kevin Barry said once that he considers the ‘Kill your darlings’ maxim to be a hoary old piece of writing advice that, for him, rings utterly false. Is there a piece of hoary old conventional writing wisdom that you have found, from your own writing experience, to be total bullshit?
CB: That’s a good question. I’ve so little comprehension of what the rules are meant to be anyway that I don’t know which are the ones I should be breaking. I think I remember getting a question like that before and I think my answer was something like “write what you know.” I think that’s nonsense, which is a funny thing to say because I’ve written a book that is totally of my own experiences. But the problem with that classic piece of advice is that people tend to take it literally. They think it means you must write autobiographically. But the whole thing changes when you put it into fiction and it becomes something else entirely. You suddenly have permission to write about all the things you don’t actually know. I’ve never been a bouncer, for instance, but fiction allowed me to move into the shadows, into the negative spaces outside of my own experiences, which were proximate to my fiction. My fiction shares a border line with my experience but I’m writing on the other side of the fence, where everything that has never happened to you is congregating. Writing what you know should be about moving over to that other side of the fence and entering that other world; using what you know to get to a place of uncertainty and fear and ambiguity because that’s where all the good writing is, on the other side of all that. As it is, “write what you know” is a treacherously simple piece of advice that people should always ignore because it tends to give them permission to use writing as a security blanket. It basically says that if you’re writing about what you’re comfortable with then you’re on the right track when of course the truth is the exact opposite. It’s only when you get into that zone of queasy, almost nauseating incertitude that you know you’re in the right place. That’s what I try to communicate, albeit in nicer terms, to people who are trying to write: when you’re on the verge of absolute collapse because you don’t know what you’re doing, that’s when you’ve hit the good stuff, that’s when it’s working.