It’d take more than a €25,000 prize and a looming football semi-final to distract Young Skins author Colin Barrett from the task of writing, says Marjorie Brennan
IN HIS introduction to the 1997 Fish Anthology, Dog Days and Other Stories, Joseph O’Connor writes: “The short story is one of the greatest, most challenging, most infuriating forms of literature. They look so easy! That’s the thing about really good short stories. They don’t read like they were written. They read like they simply grew on the page.”
Colin Barrett has certainly made it look easy with his debut collection Young Skins, which has won this year’s €25,000 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. It is an electrifying assembly of shrewdly observed stories depicting the claustrophobic and often grim reality of life in a small Irish town. The superlatives have been flying in all directions, with O’Connor prize judge Alison MacLeod calling his prose “exquisite but never rarified”. The collection was also recently longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, won last year by Donal Ryan for The Spinning Heart.
The unassuming Barrett reacts modestly to the declamations of genius. “It’s very nice of people to say that but it’s a lot to take in. I think I’m a little bit detached from it at the moment — when these things pop up in the newspapers, you’re like, ‘Who are they talking about? I hope he’s as good as they say’. It’s a little abstract for me but it’s immensely gratifying and I only hope I can merit those comparisons.”
Has it been hard for him to focus on his writing amid the hubbub and attention?
“I’m having a pretty good week, writing wise. The attention is fantastic, it’s what loads of writers want; you couldn’t legislate for winning the Frank O’Connor with your first book. It’s great if people want to do interviews, if festivals want you to talk. It’s a little disruptive, but only in a good way, you’re getting the book out there.
“I’ve been writing for a few years now, and going from getting stuff published in journals to getting a book published with an Irish publisher, Stinging Fly Press, and then publishers in the UK and US, going up those levels is great. You do see very good books written that struggle to get attention beyond the first few weeks, so keeping it circulating in the public consciousness is a good thing.
“I try to reconcile myself with that and get some writing done in between. For years I was writing and working, part-time and full-time, so I’ve gone back to that, writing in concentrated bursts when I can.”
While the prestigious award, which will be presented at the Cork International Short Story Festival next month, has been won by established names such as Edna O’Brien and Haruki Murakami, it takes on an added importance for younger writers like Barrett, for whom it buys time.
“It does, and it buys you validation, I suppose, the confidence to keep going. Not that I wouldn’t keep going if I hadn’t won the prize, but it is recognition. It makes you more determined.”
Barrett, 32, grew up in Knockmore, Co Mayo, attending school in Ballina before studying English at UCD. He worked in an office for five years before returning to UCD to do a masters in creative writing.
He was in his early 20s when short stories made an impact on him as a literary form.
“I encountered some writers in quick succession — I read the American writer Denis Johnson’s book, Jesus’ Son, and the stories were amazing. Then Flannery O’Connor, whose stories are incredibly powerful, with their black humour and tortured Roman Catholicism. Then I would have read Stinging Fly magazine, and old issues of Paris Review, which had great interviews with short story writers and short stories themselves.”
Nearer home, a name that regularly crops up in association with Barrett’s work is that of Kevin Barry, whose debut short story collection There are Little Kingdoms also drew huge critical acclaim before he went on to win the IMPAC award for his novel City of Bohane. Barrett says he is flattered by the comparison.
“I’ve met him a few times, and anyone who’s met him knows he’s a very nice guy, very generous with his time, very self-effacing about his work. His writing was an influence. There Are Little Kingdoms is an amazing book that put Stinging Fly on my radar, that quality of work coming out of Ireland that time. It resonated with me and I would never not acknowledge that influence, the inspiration that his work has been for me.”
Contemporary Ireland has been fertile hunting ground for writers such as Barrett, Barry, and Donal Ryan, resulting in stories which could fairly be described as downbeat, reflective of our post-boom inertia.
“You’d try to stick in as much humour as you can — the tragedy and bleakness and adversity are probably just the engine of the narrative. It’s very hard to write about happy people, they could be upper-class Manhattanites but you still have to focus on their relative isolation, that’s what people read for, not totally to escape problems but to acknowledge that they’re not just your own, that other people have them.
“Certainly the circumstances in Ireland, the mood of the landscape is going to bring about those — I think it’s a very germinative time in Irish writing, there’s lots of really good young Irish writers who are very accomplished, such as Sara Baume, who won the Davy Byrnes short story award, Rob Doyle, and loads of others.”
Obviously, being a writer, Barrett likes to read a lot.
“You have to, if you’re a writer, it’s your business, I suppose. There’s always a stack of books I have ready to read, they might be contemporary or older, I still have gaps in my reading experience, writers I haven’t gotten around to yet. I think you should just read based on your own inquisitiveness and joy, writers you think you’ll like. I think you should read as widely as you can if you’re a writer.”
Unlike many writers, who avoid social media because of its tendency to abet procrastination, Barrett is relatively active on Twitter. Does he believe writers need to stay abreast of popular culture?
“I don’t have a problem with that, popular culture is probably something that sinks into your bones more profoundly and at an earlier age than the higher forms, whatever you want to call them. I think the lines have blurred more and more anyway.
“There’s lots of fascinating writing on TV, and as a writer you’d always be critical and say, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t have done that’, but there’s very intriguing stuff on HBO, like The Wire, True Detective. That’s all good, people accessing that stuff might use that as a gateway. Something like True Detective has the influence of dozens of writers all over it, and I don’t mean that in a bad way, but if you like that you might like X, Y and Z. Hopefully it’ll have that effect.”
Barrett’s work might be joining the likes of True Detective on screen soon, as DMC Film, a production company backed by Irish actor Michael Fassbender, has optioned the story ‘Calm With Horses’, to adapt for a feature film.
“It’s probably a more complicated process than just saying that, but it’s the handiest thing to say because everyone just gets excited.
“I met some representatives of the company and they were excited and enthusiastic about translating it onto the screen, but we’ll see how that goes. It’s a long process, you have to put together producers, and so on. It’ll be a very strange sensation if it comes to pass... I think every novelist has a screenplay in their back pocket.”
Barrett is currently working on a novel but is reluctant to talk it up. “There’s not much to reveal, I’m at the early stages. I started it before all this rigmarole so I’ve been interrupted. I’ve been working on a short story or two in the interim.”
One of Barrett’s literary heroes, Richard Ford, will be appearing at the short story festival. Does he plan on meeting him?
“I’ll have to work up the courage to talk to him. I’m always a bit wary of meeting your heroes. I’m happy to read the work rather than make small talk. I’m looking forward to getting down to Cork, there’ll be a lot of interesting writers down there.”
As a Mayo man, there’s another big event looming on the calendar. How does he rate his county’s chances of reaching the All-Ireland through tomorrow’s semi-final with Kerry? They’ve already made it hard enough on their supporters.
“Don’t be cruel. There’ll be plenty of pain and misery. We’ll see. The last time my friend was almost in tears and said, ‘I’m not going through this again’. Loss and heartbreak, that’s where the writing comes from.”
-The Cork International Short Story Festival is on September 16-20. www.corkshortstory.net
O’Connor’s flame still burns bright
It’s no accident that when Frank O’Connor (right) was considering a title for his seminal study of the short story, he eventually settled on The Lonely Voice. “There is in the short story at its most characteristic, something we do not often find in the novel — an intense awareness of human loneliness,” he proposed in the book of essays, now a set text in American colleges.
As a description, it also sums up the boutique appeal of the form — one that’s unique and yet restricted, a genre that’s often viewed as the precursor in a writer’s career to the magnum opus of a novel. One of the great examples is Neil Jordan, who won early fame as a short story writer of huge power and control before sinking into the oblivion of Oscar victory.
Yet, despite the many challenges facing the publishing industry as well as the form, this supposed apprentice-work continues to survive and thrive, and every generation seems to throw up new talent to revitalise the genre, even as the classic names reverberate down the years.
Those names — authors like Raymond Carver, John Cheever, VS Pritchett and Alice Munro — seem at first glance to drift in and out of fashion, but it’s telling how many times the evergreens are name-checked by even the most iconoclastic newcomer. The tests posed by the short story, the challenges of structure, precision and tone, remain constant no matter what the decade.
Few names have held their currency better than Frank O’Connor. He remains crucial not just because of our forgivable parochialism — those familiar settings, those unsurprising but saddening conclusions — but because of the influence he wielded through his great sketches of Irish life, many of them published in the New Yorker magazine.
Richard Ford, a towering figure in the American literary landscape who is due in Cork to present the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award, has always been lavish in his praise for the master craftsman from Cork.
In his introduction to the Granta Book of the American Short Story he wrote: “I have always supposed that Frank O’Connor, the great and beloved Irish story writer, was only taunting us back in 1962 — the year I wrote my first short story — when he said that we Americans have handled the short story so wonderfully, one could say that it is our national art form. Why, I’ve thought, would as good a story writer as there ever was from a country where the short story was already the national art form decide to cut us in unless it was to make fun with fulsome praise?”
While O’Connor has been a touchstone for American writers of the last 40 years and more, his shadow falls in a less direct way on some of the Irish short story writers who have been blazing a trail in recent years. This year’s winner of the O’Connor prize, Colin Barrett, is, like Kevin Barry and Donal Ryan, a sharp chronicler of provincial life himself.
Lonely they might be, but the voices are as strong as ever.
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