WHILE we now do much of our reading on digital devices, for many, there is still nothing to beat the sheer sensory pleasure of a new book. Bibliophiles’ hearts will leap with joy at Winter Pages, a beautifully produced arts anthology edited by author Kevin Barry and his wife, law academic Olivia Smith. The pale blue cloth-covered, thread-sewn hardback is designed for aesthetic as much as literary appreciation and its production was something the couple, who live in Sligo, had long considered.
“We were talking about it in a very vague way for a long time. The spur was that we’re not very good at shopping and buying Christmas presents. Sometimes you end up buying something that you secretly want yourself. We both love books, not just in terms of content but as beautiful objects. So we decided to see if we could make a beautiful object that we would want for ourselves,” says Smith.
“A few years ago, we saw a yearbook for John McGahern studies. That was beautifully produced, and was one of the design inspirations for it,” says Barry. “We dealt with John Foley at Bite! Associates in Cork. I know him for 20 years and he’s a top-quality designer. When you know it’s going to look good, it makes it a lovely relaxed process.”
However, Smith says they were also conscious about achieving a balance between design and content.
“We wanted to make sure we had both elements. Sometimes a beautifully produced book can be kind of empty inside. We wanted to make sure there was enough reading inside as well, so hopefully we managed to do that.” The anthology features stories, essays, reportage, photography and visual arts, alongside interviews with figures ranging from walking stick maker Seanie Barron to Blindboy Boatclub from the Rubberbandits. Also included is an edited transcript of a hugely funny and entertaining conversation between Barry and comedian Tommy Tiernan that took place at the Festival of Writing and Ideas at Borris House in Co Carlow last summer.
“That was a long transcription that Olivia kindly did,” says Barry. “We had no plan, I was very nervous about talking for an hour, winging it. When we came off I felt, ‘that went grand, they seemed to enjoy it but I said hardly nothing, Tommy was doing all the talking’. But when Olivia transcribed it, I had talked for twice as long as Tommy, out of pure nerves. He’s very funny but he’s very smart as well. He’s tuned into very strange vibrations around the place. It was a nice piece and I was interested to see what it would look like in black and white on the page.”
Another fascinating contribution is Mary Kate O’Flanagan’s interview with Jeppe Gjervig Gram, one of the creators of hit Danish TV programme Borgen.
“Did you see the picture of Jeppe,” says Barry. “He looks exactly what the creator of Borgen should look like. It’s interesting that Denmark is the same size as Ireland and it has made this brilliant international-class television industry. And it’s a real lesson for us in what’s possible in a small country with limited resources, if you do it right.
Barry says the interviews are an integral part of the journal. “They are for people who are interested in how things are made. I’ve always been obsessed with the Paris Review interviews with writers, and I really enjoy reading about the nuts and bolts of it. It was great to have stuff like Jeppe and Lenny Abrahamson talk about how they do it physically, day by day.”
The book also contains essays and stories from some of Ireland’s top literary talent, established and upcoming. There seems to be a renewed appetite for Irish writing in recent years and Barry says this is reflected in the positive response to Winter Pages.
“It’s been brilliant, and it seems to be flying out the door, fingers crossed. There has been an explosion in literary journals in the last few years. There seems to be a healthy ecosystem out there. Writers are very venal creatures and always respond to new markets for them. When I was in Cork and working for the Examiner in the early 2000s, there were only one or two places to send short stories. There’s a rake of places now, which is great for younger writers.”
The multi-award-winning Barry, who was once “one to watch” himself, is keen to promote emerging talent in the journal.
“There’s some new voices, including Sally Rooney, who’s disgracefully young, about 25. Her short story has brilliant control for a young writer. From the Cork contingent, you have Sara Baume (named newcomer of the year at the Irish Book Awards on Wednesday) and Danielle McLaughlin.
My own piece (Monologue - On Buxton Hill) is set up in Sunday’s Well, where I’m going through the windmills of my mind, taking myself back to the late 1990s. The book was designed and printed in Cork, and we’re delighted with that because it gives us a chance to come down all the time.” Smith adds that the Cork-based Waterman Printers have been nominated for an award for the book at the Irish Print Awards later this month.
How was the process of working on the book together, was there any tension over division of labour?
“We’re co-editors, so Olivia did exactly 89% of the work,” laughs Barry. “My 11% consisted of crawling up onto the couch and having little panic attacks. And sobbing a bit. She’s far more organised.” The high quality of the book is reflected in its price tag of €40 but, like most anthologies of its type, the project is altruistically rather than financially driven.
“There isn’t a fortune to be made in annual arts journals, but if it covers itself and keeps going then that’s a success and we’re delighted to do it,” says Barry. “It’s a lot of work, with commissioning and design, and print and marketing, but the great thing is that it’s a cottage industry we can do out of the house in Sligo. And it keeps us in out of the rain.” Smith adds: “People respond to a beautiful object, and it’s designed to be a present for people who are interested in the arts. It’s one for people to put on the Christmas list. It’s a really pleasing thing, it’s our own little publishing endeavour, designed and printed in Cork. It’s a little Irish entity.” Barry has been busy of late, promoting his latest book Beatlebone which has been attracting rave reviews and for which he was recently awarded the £10,000 Goldsmith’s Prize.
“I was thrilled with that. It kind of settles the guts a bit to get a prize so early for your book. I seem to be getting away with it.” As for Curlew Editions, Smith and Barry hope to publish another instalment of Winter Pages next year.
“We’re hoping to make this an annual thing, to come out every November, but we’ll build up the possibility of publishing other books down the line,” says Barry. “I could end up publishing myself, you never know. I’d have negotiations with myself about a big advance.”