Winter Papers: From Prague to Tangier via a big slog in Sligo

Olivia Smith and Kevin Barry. Pic: Fergal Phillips

Kevin Barry and Olivia Smith have produced another edition of their Winter Papers literary journal, writes Marjorie Brennan.

In its four years of existence, the annual Winter Papers anthology has become known for its eclectic sweep of the arts and literature in Ireland. 

Author Kevin Barry, co-editor of the volume with his wife Olivia Smith, says they don’t really believe in having a theme but that sometimes one will organically emerge from their contributors.

“Every year, we find the same kind of thing is cropping up in different writers’ work, a lot of people are homing on the same areas. This year, God, of all people started showing up all over the shop,” he laughs. 

“We have a piece from Jan Carson about growing up in a Presbyterian household in the North, Aiden O’Reilly has an essay about being an atheist altar boy growing up in Dublin, while Wendy Erskine has another story that also has a Northern Presbyterian background.”

To try and tie these threads together, Barry and Smith decided to feature a particular religious icon they had encountered in their perambulations around their home in Sligo.

“We often pass this phone box down in south Co Roscommon with a Child of Prague in it, and we decided to commission some photographs of it,” says Barry.

Smith interjects to ask if I know what the Child of Prague is for [its placement outside is said to guarantee good weather for a wedding.]

“It’s amazing the number of people who don’t know what it is for,” she says. Adds Barry: “We had a launch in Belfast the other night and we were asking people did they know what the Child of Prague was for and they had no idea. God help us, they’re kept in the dark up there,” he laughs.

“It’s great though when themes naturally emerge without forcing them in a false way. And definitely with Limerick winning the All-Ireland, miracles are in the air this year,” he says.

Barry’s native county has a strong presence in Winter Papers this year, including an interview with Limerick-based John Lillis aka Mynameisjohn, of the hip-hop trio Rusangano Family.

The cover of the 2018 Winter Papers

“It is interesting that cities with lower rents seem to have a lot going on creatively and Limerick and Belfast are really buzzy at the moment,” says Barry. 

“A large part of it is the fact that young writers and artists aren’t having to work five jobs to pay the rent. 

"Limerick has a kind of creative cultural confidence now that it didn’t have when I was living there in the ’90s.”

Winter Papers has also become known for showcasing the talents of emerging writers. 

The first anthology featured Sally Rooney, who has since gone on to achieve huge success with her novels Conversations with Friends and Normal People.

“In truth, it wouldn’t have taken two geniuses to figure out that Sally had ability, she’s such a natural writer. It was her first published fiction; it’s great when you have someone who takes off so quickly,” says Barry.

Winter Papers 4 features fiction from writers such as Mike McCormack, whose Solar Bones conquered all before it last year, and rising stars Danny Denton and Ian Maleney. 

There is also a strong selection of non-fiction, a genre which has been gaining strength in Ireland in recent years.

The Child of Prague in a phonebox in Co Roscommon. Pic: Anna Leask

“I think the essay is going through a bit of a boom period,” says Smith. “We have great exponents of it. 

"People are utilising the space provided within journals and magazines to develop essay-writing skills, using it as a springboard to publishing collections.”

Adds Barry: “For years, essays were something you studied for your Leaving Cert and then wouldn’t see again. Over the last few years, there seems to be a lot of writers who almost have an impatience with fiction, with making it up. There is something more direct about the essay, it can really cut to the quick of things.”

Barry has no such impatience with fiction and his latest novel has just been dispatched to his publishers Canongate. 

Called A Night Boat to Tangier, it will be on the shelves next July. The publishers describe it as “drenched in sex and death and narcotics”.

“I finished it two weeks ago, says Barry. “You’ll be delighted to hear there are Cork people in it, though it is set in Spain. 

"I’m not saying much about it yet. I’m very excited about it. I can’t believe it will be four years since the last one, Beatlebone.”

Meanwhile, Winter Papers has become the Christmas stocking filler of choice for Irish bibliophiles.

“People get in touch to say they love it and that is a great encouragement to keep going year after year. If you were just putting it out into a void, it would be hard to keep going,” says Smith.

Adds Barry: “We’re up on the horse now and we’ll keep it going for sure. I think it is still opening up in terms of possibilities of what we can do with it.”

Winter Papers, Edited by Kevin Barry and Olivia Smith, Curlew Editions, €40

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