Limerickman and novelist Kevin Barry (Dark Lies the Island, City of Bohane, Beatlebone) speaks to Limerickwoman and theatre director Maeve Stone about his first original text for the stage, Autumn Royal, opening in Dublin February 7th 2017.
K: Hi Maeve, how’s it going?
M: Hiya, how’s things? Are you in weird jetlag town or has your brain caught up with you coming back from Boston?
K: I stayed up late and kind of conked out so I woke up with a start at 9 o’clock, so I’m okay.
M: You’re a pro! What were you up to in Boston?
K: I have a residency in Boston College so I’m over there for four months. It’s grand. It gets me out of the swamp in Sligo.
M: It’s a pretty cool town.
K: I dunno, I don’t love it. We’re out in the leafy suburbs. It’s grand, you know? It’s very pleasant and very boring so it’s a great place to get some work done. Are you in Dublin Maeve? Is that where you’re based?
M: I am but I’m actually from Limerick too.
K: Oh are you? Where are you from in Limerick?
M: Castleconnell. What’s your town?
K: I’m from the city. From Ballinacurra. Just before the crescent shopping centre.
M: Handy. I spent my youth waiting for buses. There was only six into the city every day. Nightmare.
K: You work as a director as well is it?
M: Yeah, I’m working in theatre, I actually know Caitriona [McLaughlin, Director of Autumn Royal].
K: Oh right! Great. We actually had quite a late night last night so I’m slightly bewildered but I’ll get there.
M: Not gonna lie, I had a similar evening. We’re in the same brain maybe. That was one of my questions actually, about being hungover, I think you notice stuff that you can’t see when you’re not hungover.
K: Yeah. Y’know what, I used to be able - when I was a young man in my twenties - I used to be able to use hangovers for writing because I think it’s a strange, skewed version of reality for a few hours and I used to be able to get into the prose of it. I would be out on the tiles a lot but I can’t do it any more. I tend to be good and go to bed early now. There’s definitely a skewed, warped version of reality that’s very interesting though.
M: Yeah, I’ve thought about why that is. Dehydration maybe? It’s sort of like things slow down so you can see them better I dunno,.
K: Yeah there’s a few synapses burnt out in the brain.
M: Yeah! One less colour maybe. How did the show go last night?
K: Great. It’s strange for me because you have it on the page for so long and you’re waiting for it to settle on its legs. I must say I really enjoyed it. I thought they were really funny. The thing I was most pleased about is I think they get the dark. I knew they’d get the laughs, the actors are really funny, but I think they balanced it with the quieter, darker places that it needs to go as well. And everyone seems to be in bits at the end of it which is great. Job done.
M: Were the audience crying?
K: I think it’s the kind of story where nearly every family has a version of it. And at this point, thinking about older people, I think it connects with a lot of people at a gut level. I suppose it’s always what I’m trying to do when I’m writing these demented little comedies. I think laughter is a physical reaction and if you can get people chuckling away, what you’re doing on the sly is you’re opening them up and you’re making them really vulnerable. To your tricks! [Laughter] And then you can really twist the knife. That’s purely what it is with comedy, you’re manipulating people to open up emotionally and then when they’re unaware you can drag them into a really dark and poignant place. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to articulate five or ten years ago why I write comedy but I think that’s it. It’s a kind of slyness to try and bring people into the troubled places.
M: It’s a method that feels really familiar. I feel like the Irish humour is a dark one. Maybe because we’re so bad at talking about things?
K: That’s it. You know? I’m always struck by Irish people when they’re outside Tom Collins in Limerick or outside the dead house, all the jokes that tend to go on and all the wise cracking that tends to go on outside a funeral. I don’t think it happens much in other cultures. It’s basically because we can’t deal with the fact of the poor misfortunate who’s dead in the box inside. It’s really, really stark emotional stuff that we shy away from. But it’s a very normal thing.
M: Looking at it indirectly or something?
K: Yeah, and there’s a quote from Nabakov I love when he described - I think he used it as a book title - laughter in the dark. It always struck me as a perfect metaphor for what I think I’m trying to do. But I do sometimes read back over what I’ve written and go “Jesus, what’s wrong with me?” Y’know? All the jokes about some poor man with dementia in a bed and it’s playing for laughs the whole way.
M: I was researching drowning for a project and came across this image of people being gripped by hysterical laughter in the moments before death. I think it’s a fear thing too. Coping with the fear in those dark moments. And because the idea of dying is so huge it becomes hilarious maybe?
K: I did a collaboration with a visual artist in Galway last year - Louise Manifold is her name - and it was about this disease she was researching. It’s a kind of a syndrome where you wake up one day and think you’re dead. It’s a rare psychological disorder.
K: I think one of Beckett’s prose pieces is based on it - The Unnamable. It’s called Cotard’s delusion. I heard of a case of it where some woman or fella gets out of bed and decides “I’ve passed over. I’ve gone on to the next world”. And no amount of convincing will persuade them that they haven’t. It was mad, Louise had made a wonderful film and a very kind of abstracted film that she shot out around Connemara on old cameras and I just wrote this monologue to go with it about a person who has this experience. It’s called On being there and not being there. I dunno, I think it’s on vimeo [It is: https://vimeo.com/65849098]. It’s such difficult material to talk about but you can’t stay away from it. After a while you think I might as well do the real things you know? [Laughter]. Do the hard stuff.
M: So I had this idea that I would ask you questions that your own characters have asked.
K: Oh great.
M: So I have a couple of questions. First one: Did you ever come loose from yourself?
K: Absolutely. Undoubtedly once I had the sensation of floating above my own body. It was in my early twenties I’d say. I was lying on the floor of the flat I was living in, in Perry Square in Limerick City, and in all truth hallucinogenic drugs were involved as well. But I had a very really feeling of being outside of my body and floating around. I even remember what I was listening to at the time. I was listening to De La Soul’s “3 Feet High And Rising”. In that kind of a hallucinatory way, absolutely. But to answer it in a slightly more serious way I think every time you sit down to write you’re trying to come loose from yourself. You’re trying to access really difficult subconscious planes because you’re trying to get to the murky stuff at the back of the mind because that’s where fiction happens. To get there it’s this weird pact that you have to make with yourself where you’re actually talking to your own subconscious and you’re saying “Look, give me something and my part of the deal is that I’m going to be a pro and I’ll show up at the desk. So if you send me strange images from my own murky depths I’ll be there to shape them.” So yeah, I have come loose from myself, and I’m trying to come loose from myself [laughter].
M: I had another question which is mine and not your characters'. I tried LSD last year and I was really surprised by how much I remembered of the experience which made sense of how it’s been such a creative source for artists historically. I started thinking about whether there’s an equivalent. Like daydreaming maybe?
K: I had a big exciting period in my twenties where I used a great deal of LSD. I was a martyr for it. But after a while the really useful, creative effect it has on you diminishes. The more you take it. Once you’ve opened the door you don’t need to keep opening the door again and again and again [laughter]. But I found it really useful creatively in my early twenties. Not in terms of specific creative projects but just in terms of looking at my life and thinking I don’t really have to do the thing of ‘get a proper job’, I can try and be an artist. It gave me a sense of the world. That it was too interesting to be tying yourself down to something you don’t want to be doing. I was working as a freelance journalist and getting on grand but I wanted to do other things and use parts of my brain that I wasn’t using. I was just writing journalistic work. So from the age of about 19 to 25 I was into psychedelics. I wouldn’t advocate it for everyone but personally it did a lot for me in terms of how I use my brain creatively. Was there another bit of that question? Did I miss a bit of it?
M: Have you found a different equivelant?
K: What I try now is - the thing is that writing is quite hard on you physically. You’re at a desk and you’re hunched and it’s quite wired. So what I think is quite important is I try and take care of myself physically and I stay as well as possible. I swim a lot. And I walk a lot. They’re hugely important for the work. Their place is where I get time to not think about the work. It sounds kind of counterintuitive but I think one of the worst things you can do when you’re writing is think about it too much. I actually think it’s the sort of stuff you have to leave sit, there, in your subconscious. I really like going swimming. In Sligo I go to a pool or I swim in the lake and I really like that white space you get. After a morning’s work I especially like when I go to the sea, to Rosses Point, it just feels like the reset button on your computer. It just seems to clean the slate or something and you can start again in a refreshed way. It’s weird, I only learned to swim properly in my twenties, I never learned to swim properly as a child. But once I did learn I took to it, and I love it. I’m trying to write an essay at the moment about swimming. I kept a diary of all my outdoor swims last year. It’s really weird when you start recording them swim by swim, how different each one is, what it does to you physically and emotionally, you know?
M: That’s amazing.
K: I was reading an old piece about one of my favourite bands recently too which is Dexys Midnight Runners and in the early 80s when they were recording their first record Kevin Roland, who was a great mad genius, used to have all the band go out and run a really quick mile and come back. So they’d then go in sweating and panting and go in and pick up the instruments. So yeah… I don’t know how to describe what I’m trying to say to you. Something about writing as a physical act.
M: No I totally get that. It makes sense to me. You have to find ways to switch off your thinking brain so that all the weird unconscious stuff can get rebooted as you say.
K: So that the problems can fix themselves when you’re not focused in on them.
M: Yeah, like electrons change when you observe them. If you stare at a thing it changes, or stops having the same meaning.
K: I think I’m going towards being one of these strange creatures who tries to swim year-round in Ireland. I start outdoors in April and I go to late October. Actually the water temperature doesn’t change that much.
M: It’s the air temperature?
K: It’s just always fucking freezing.
M: I always think people who swim all year round are going to live forever too. When I see people out in the sea and it’s mid September I think “You’re going to live til you’re 98.”
K: There’s something that feels fundamentally right about it. As you get older - I’m 47 now - things like jogging fuck your knees after a while. Swimming is much kinder. I really love it. I love where it sends your mind as well.
M: I’ve heard a lot of writers speak about walking and running as being a good balance for the act of writing. But it also struck me that it’s a practical way of getting to know the map of a place. Getting to know the streets and the architecture and the faces and the texture of the place. So here’s a question from one of your characters along that line: Do you think that towns have their own emotions?
K: Definitely, like I’m looking at McCurtain street in Cork City as we speak. It’s very - I’m not sure exactly how I would describe it but… the residents are vibrating. I do tune in. Not just in cities or in towns but wherever I am. Most writers and artists have this. It tends to be a place that has the first spark of a prompt for a new piece of work. It’s some kind of energy or vibration that a place gives off that makes you want to create something that responds to it. If I sit down to write a story or a script I often find that Cork accents show up on the page quite quickly even though I haven’t lived here for fifteen or sixteen years. I do believe that they have their own emotions. And I also believe that they are sexed, that they're gendered. I think there are male towns and female towns. I think Cork is male, I think Dublin is female.
M: I kind of love that. How do you figure out their sex?
K: I dunno I think it’s a feeling. I think it’s very straightforward in a lot of places. London - male, Paris - female, Limerick… ambiguous. [Laughter] Limerick is hard to call. Limerick is-
K: Trans! But I do very much feel that everything I write starts with a place and some sort of odd emotional response or an urge. It’s usually what sends me to open a new file or turn a new page.
M: Another character question: What makes a reasonable or agreeable town?
K: I don’t think it has anything to do with the looks of a place. You can have very handsome pretty places that don’t have a happy feeling to them. There was a philosopher in county Kerry - John Moriarty - and he used to talk a lot about this in his beautiful Kerry accent. He’d talk about happy fields and sad fields. You can walk through a field and pass through this cloud of happiness that is in it and feel elated and then come out of it and it’s gone. And similarly the same with a melancholy field in another corner of the country. I did an event with Tommy Tiernan a couple of years ago at the Borris festival, we talked a lot about this too. He’s tuned in to it. I think all musicians and writers and artists have this sense of tuning in to places. It’s listening more than looking. It’s the oral thing. I’m trying to start to use it in a pragmatic way. I’ve started to go and write on location. When I go cycling I often go over the Ox Mountains towards Mayo and for years passing over that way I thought I’d like to write something set there from the haunting melancholy feeling I was getting from it. I said “Fuck it, I’ll actually go out there and write something on the ground.” It worked out, I got a story called Ox Mountain Death Song. I’ve got a lot of friends who are visual artists and I like looking at the way that they consider their practice. It’s much more rigorous. Writers stick to habits and work in the same way all the time. If it worked the last time then they do it again. I think you end up writing the same thing again and again. So it’s key for me to look at the way that I work and see if I can make changes, see if I can stir it up a bit and shake it loose of any staleness. So that’s one of the things that makes it really attractive to me to go and write something for the stage or a film rather than just me and four walls and prose fiction all the time.
M: You like taking new risks?
K: Yeah, I think so. I’m really wary of developing facility and techniques. You know? I know there’s a certain kind of short story that I could write, a book. But I don’t know how interesting it would be for me at this point.
M: Is the process of doing it and making it as important as the thing you’ve made at the end?
[Then Skype went mental.. It made for boring transcript so just imagine every frustrating skype call you’ve had where you just say “I can hear you can you hear me” a lot for a few minutes.]
K: It’s the dodgy Irish internet I think. Where were we?
M: Working for the stage - it’s a new thing?
K: Yeah, I’ve done a few things over the years. I’ve adapted short stories and I had a puppet show in Galway a few years ago and I’ve always really enjoyed it. When I was writing the last novel, Beatlebone, I felt that sections in that novel were very naturally breaking down into play texts, essentially. And also I’ve been writing radio drama for RTÉ and the BBC for the last few years so there was just a load of nudges into theatre. My subconscious was telling me that’s what you should be doing for the next while, writing for actors directly. I’ve written three plays in the last year and a half. Autumn Royal is the first to get up and running and I’m really enjoying it.
M: Is it a weird experience being in that process? Working with writers in rehearsal myself it’s always a really active conversation in the room around meaning and editing. Is that something you enjoy?
K: It’s very different from editing a piece of fiction where I get very nice, loving letters from editors which are quite broad in their overall themes. At this stage you tend to get very little line by line stuff really. Whereas going into a rehearsal room every line is being interrogated because the actors need to know what it’s doing and where it’s bringing them. It’s more forensic. It’s more rigorous on a line by line level and I think that’s good for you as a writer. It makes you consider the weight of every sentence. It’s been really interesting to see where we’ve gotten to. I’ve been very happy - I’d say 95% of what I wrote and went into rehearsal with on the first day is there. It’s in a different order and there’s been furniture moved around in the text. A lot of it with this particular piece was about finding where the actors come down in gears into the quieter, darker themes. Moving out of the frenetic comedy into the difficult stuff. It’s a very intense process and I’ve really enjoyed working with the actors and Cat [Caitriona McLaughlin] on it. So I’m eager to do more straight away!
M: Excellent, and it’s opening in Dublin on Tuesday?
K: Yeah! It opens in Project but I’m not going to see it, I have to go back to Boston, but I think it’ll work nicely in the Cube there. We’re on stage at the Everyman and it’s a kind of weird space for it but the designers have done an amazing job. I think it’s almost more naturally designed for the Cube. I think it’ll work well in there.
M: Do you think the relationship to the audience will shift at all? Given the idea of Cork in the work?
K: The thing is that Dublin is crawling with people from Cork anyway. So I’m sure plenty will show up. I think if a piece works and it’s funny it doesn’t really matter where it is.
[More skype connection bullshit]
K: Skype just does your head after a while doesn’t it?
M: Yeah it kind of breaks my heart.
K: It’s the Irish internet I think.
M: I won’t keep you too much longer because I know you’ll need to head back in but thank you! Some great chat and some interesting ideas swirling around in there.
K: I’m just looking for a link to Louise Manifold’s piece so I can send it to you. What are you working on at the minute?
M: I just finished a development working with another director exploring the life of Bas Jan Ader who was a video artist in the 70s who disappeared at sea. We had a showing of that yesterday and I’m starting the next phase - everything is a development in my life right now! - but there’s a company from Melbourne called the Rabble who arrive in two weeks to start the next phase of work on a project we’re making for next year. It’s called UNWOMAN.
K: Brilliant. And have you done anything down in Limerick?
M: I did a thing years ago at the Belltable called “Andy Warhol’s Nothing Special” which was good craic. Nobody came. [Laughter]
K: I like the Belltable. I spent my teenage years hanging out in the coffee shop there.
M: Down in the basement!
K: Yep. I have that link for you now.
M: Great, thanks.
K: I enjoyed the chat.
M: Me too, I won’t get to see you if you’re away to Boston but hopefully our paths will cross.
K: I’m sure they will. Great talking to you.