“It’s a big prize money-wise,” said Barry, who collected a cheque for €100,000 as winner of the 2013 International Impac Dublin Literary Award.
“But as a writer you don’t have wages as such and you’re always going to have lean years and good ones, so this makes it a good year, obviously.”
The book is Barry’s first novel. He has previously published two acclaimed collections of short stories and is a former Irish Examiner columnist.
“Prizes like the Impac,” said Barry, “what they do very importantly is keep books at the centre of the life in Ireland. There’s a lot of pressure on books, on literature, because people are very pressed for time, they’re doing other things, living online a lot, so it’s a struggle to keep the coverage going.”
City of Bohane is set in the post-apocalyptic future of a fictional, crime-ridden Irish city. With its cartoon violence and feuding gangs, Bohane is a Wild West on the West coast, but what truly elevates the book is the richness of Barry’s writing.
The idiom of his characters is an arresting mix of influences. “There’s an awful lot of Cork in it, I spent a lot of my 20s in Cork, and a lot of Limerickese too, but there’s also what I’ve been watching over the last couple of years, The Wire, The Sopranos, that’s some of the best narrative fiction around.”
But as well as doing what he describes as something “difficult with language”, Barry also set out in City of Bohane to entertain. “I wanted a big technicolor gang war and a love triangle. Nothing quiet or subtle going on, a big, visceral page-turner,” he said.
Barry beat competition from previous winners Michel Houellebecq and Andrew Miller.
The Impac’s nomination process, involving selections from dozens of libraries in 43 countries, gives it a uniquely international flavour, and the shortlist was completed by works from Japan (Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84), the Netherlands (Caesarion, by Tommy Wieringa), Iceland (From the Mouth of the Whale, by Sjon), Norway (The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am, by Kjersti A Skomsvold), and the US (The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka; The Tragedy of Arthur, by Arthur Phillips; and Swamplandia by Karen Russell).
“The fact that the prize originates with the libraries makes it very special to me, because all writers start as odd children, hiding away in libraries. It’s really cool for me to be nominated by Cork City Library, Limerick City Library, and Dublin City Library. I have connections with all of them.”
Barry is the third Irish writer to win the prize, following Colum McCann, who won in 2011 for Let the Great World Spin, and Colm Tóibín, who won in 2006 with The Master.
Now, his attention turns to the film adaptation of City of Bohane. The script is in development with Parallel Films. “It’s a book that lends itself naturally to a film version, but it’ll take a few quid. You couldn’t do it cheap, so fingers crossed we might see the white smoke and something will happen.”