The Irish writer Kevin Barry is no stranger to literary laurels. His debut novel, City of Bohane (2011), won the European Union Prize for Literature and the IMPAC Dublin Award. His two collections of short stories have been awarded the Rooney Prize and the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. His second novel, Beatlebone (2015), won the Goldsmiths Prize. Now Barry is out with a wicked little rabbit-punch of a novel, Night Boat to Tangier, that’s on the longlist for this year’s prestigious Booker Prize. From his home in County Sligo, Ireland, Barry spoke by phone recently with The Millions staff writer Bill Morris.
Kevin Barry: Yes, of course, in Washington Square Park. October of 2015 it would have been.
TM: I remember a couple of things about that day, Kevin. First of all, we talked about places, and you said your books come from the reverberations given off by a place, and a specific place is the beginning of all your books. In Night Boat to Tangier, the most prominent place is the Spanish port of Algeciras, where our Irish drug-runner buddies Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond are waiting for Maurice’s daughter, Dilly. Have you been to Algeciras?
KB: I have, I have. The first time I passed through was 1991 en route to Tangier, for largely William Burroughs-related reasons. I would have been 20, 21, and big into the whole Burroughs thing at that age. So I went to Tangier and stayed in the hotel where he wrote Naked Lunch, and all that. Afterwards I had a much stronger memory of Algeciras, which is a gloriously seedy kind of town. Something about the place just seemed to offer itself up to fiction. I’ve been back many times; I go to Spain a lot. I go during the winter here. January and February, the west of Ireland is just a fucken swamp and it’s gray and dark and creative energy goes down. Since the winter of 1999 I’ve been escaping for however long I can afford, for a few days, a few weeks, even a coupla months to the south of Spain, just kind of mooching about these little cities.
TM: What was it about Algeciras, though? The seediness of it? The history? The bones in the ground?
KB: Like with all novelists, it was two things combining. I had these two characters in my mind that kept showing up, Maurice and Charlie, and I knew that having gone to Spain so often for so many years, I wanted to write a Spain book, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it—until I had a blinding flash of inspiration one day: what if I just put those two Cork gangsters down there? So I just sent them down there. It’s weird, you only figure out stuff about a novel after you’ve finished it and start talking about it. It strikes me that the movement of this book is directly the reverse of my earlier novels, City of Bohane and Beatlebone. Both of those books started out offering a kind of realism but then very quickly went into fantastical territory. This one is the opposite. It starts out with this highly theatrical premise, but it kind of moves toward realism as we go through the book. You become kinder to your characters as you get older. This is a very different treatment of this story than I would have written 10 years ago. I guess that’s the start of any long story or novel or script or whatever, what you’re doing really, as a writer, is you’re giving yourself a problem and asking yourself if you can fix this problem in 220 pages, or whatever it is. And the problem I gave myself at the start here was, I have to make the reader not just vaguely sympathize with these two guys, but I want to make the reader love them and buy into their world. As desperate and as dangerous and as dark a pair of individuals as they are, I want to see if I can sell their soul and their spirit to the reader.
TM: Another thing I remember from our conversation in Washington Square Park was that I asked you that obligatory, ridiculous question: What are you working on next? And you told me you thought you were going to head back to the fictional City of Bohane. And yet here you wind up in Algeciras, Cork, Cadiz, Malaga, Barcelona, London. Why the detour?
KB: I gave a reading from City of Bohane last year for the first time in eight or nine years. The reading was at the university in Athens, Ga.
TM: My father’s hometown!
KB: It’s a great town. I saw Michael Stipe on the street when I was there. But as I was reading from the novel I thought, wow, there’s great vitality in the language here, but it’s hard to go back. It felt to me very much like a first novel, in terms of the way it was structured. What you have to figure out as a writer often is what projects should be on your desk at a particular time in your life. I had thought vaguely of going back to the City of Bohane, but I thought, no, let’s do other things. Somebody said once that the great enemy of a good idea is another good idea. I get that a lot. Notions pile up for stories and books and I kind of jump around. I’m not ruling out going back to Bohane. I’ve talked to people about developing it for TV, but I don’t know that I’d have access to the same language that I had when I was writing that book. It’s quite a young man’s book [laughs]. As fond as I am of it, you change as a writer.
TM: You mentioned the vitality of the language when you were giving the reading in Athens. Night Boat to Tangier certainly has its own vitality. I’d like to read you a couple of short sentences from the novel and then ask you a question.
TM: A character walks into a bar here: “The barman is as stoned-looking as a fucking koala.” Here’s a woman: “She had a smile like a home-made explosive device.” And here are two lovers: “They fought like drunk gorillas.” So here’s my question: is there a little workshop at the back of Kevin Barry’s writing studio where he has little tiny precision tools that he uses to carve out these crazy fucking similes?
KB: You did manage to pick one of my favorites in the book, and that’s the home-made explosive device. I think I might have given myself an afternoon off after that one [laughs]. If there’s any writer I sometimes go to for that kind of thing, it’s the very late V.S. Pritchett, who comes up with these really unexpected images all the time. I remain a devotee of his. You know that overused expression, being “on the nose”? And I probably err in the opposite direction because I try to go as off the nose as possible. The reader has to say, “Okay, I can see a smile that could go off like a home-made explosive device.”
TM: You mention Pritchett. As I was reading the book I was thinking of Samuel Beckett, of course.
KB: Sure, Irishmen waiting.
TM: Tell me some other influences on this book.
KB: The playwright I was thinking about mostly wasn’t Beckett, believe it or not, it was Harold Pinter. I really like those early Pinter plays from the early ’60s, The Caretaker and The Birthday Party. They’re really funny, but they’ve got great menace like a thread going through them. Those books were close to my desk as I was writing. I was also reading Don DeLillo’s Libra, his Lee Harvey Oswald novel.
TM: I remember we talked about that before—how the Jack Ruby character spoke to you.
KB: Exactly right. Sometimes as a writer you have books that you use like tuning forks. You come across favorite books by favorite writers where you know that the writer’s ear is just completely in. I often go back and read those Jack Ruby sections from Libra because there’s beautiful unexpected comedy in them, and great characterization, and just brilliant dialogue. Sometimes when you’re feeling flat or kind of slow you want to pick up some of the good stuff and remind yourself what the mountain looks like.
TM: You also mentioned that Elmore Leonard is another writer whose dialogue speaks to you.
KB: Oh, for sure. I love Elmore Leonard’s golden period, I’d say from the early ’70s to the early ’80s where he was just on fire, beautiful economy of storytelling and killer dialogue. I’ve always been a reader of crime fiction. I had a long period in my 20s of reading nothing but James Ellroy, which isn’t recommended [laughs]. The problem with reading a writer like Ellroy when you’re starting out as a writer is that the style is so strong and pronounced that you can’t help but ape it on the page. It’s funny, Night Boat to Tangier has elements of a crime novel. My U.S. editor describes it as a book with criminals in it rather than a crime book, and I think that’s kind of right. Especially in the title I was thinking about stuff like Graham Greene’s entertainments, things like Stamboul Train, that vaguely noirish, thrillerish atmosphere rather than plot. I was happy when I came up with the title Night Boat to Tangier. That’s Graham Greene-ish.
TM: Speaking of Graham Greene, I’ve got a question about Catholicism. There’s this description of a bartender in your novel: “He looked as if it were all turning out just as he’d been warned. A Catholic, in other words.” Having been raised Catholic, I can attest that you nailed it there. Were you raised Catholic?
KB: I was, of course. When I was growing up here in the ’70s and ’80s, Ireland was still almost a Catholic monolith. It’s very different now in lots of ways. I don’t have a religious bone in my body, but if there’s any Catholicism left in me it’s in my prose style. I’ve got a stained-glass-window of a prose style. I would sometimes love to have a lean, austere, stripped-back Protestant style, but it’s just fucken not in me, man [laughs]. I’m a stained-glass guy.
TM: Your novel’s protagonists, Charlie and Maurice, these guys are a load, and they carry the book on their beat-up backs. But I really fell for Maurice’s daughter, Dilly, when she said she’s been listening to the reggae singer Lee Scratch Perry. That man’s a genius. Are you a fan, by any chance?
KB: Absolutely. I would argue strongly that one of the great cultural acts of the 20th century was when Lee Scratch Perry burned his Black Ark Studio (in Kingston, Jamaica) to the ground on the basis that it was possessed by duppies, by evil spirits. And he said, “Okay, I’m going to burn this thing to the ground and move to Switzerland.” I think that’s one of the greatest artistic gestures of our time. I listen to Scratch Perry all the time. But I’ve gotten quite jazzy with age. I listen to a lot more jazz than I used to, one of the reasons being I finally got a nice new record player, so I’ve been buying vinyl a lot and the jazz stuff sounds so good on vinyl. And it’s something I can listen to when I’m working without the distraction of lyrics.
TM: I went to see Scratch Perry perform in New York a few years ago, and I was afraid he was going to be gaga—but he was great! The band was tight, he was coherent, he was on his game.
KB: Yeah, he’s sober. He got off the weed.
TM: Let’s talk briefly about your novel’s form. You mentioned that is starts off in a kind of fantastical way and then becomes more realistic. Throughout, the paragraphs are short, very little punctuation, no quotation marks or dashes to denote dialog. Tell me about these decisions.
KB: This often, for me, is the fun of it and the enjoyment of it. I hate the first draft, it’s really slow and laborious, dragging the stuff out of your darkest recesses. What I tend to do is write long in the first draft so I have a lot of material to start playing with. For me, the fun of it is seeing how much scaffolding I can take away. At least that’s the way I am now as a writer. I probably had more of a maximalist approach when I was writing my first novel. Now I like to see how much of the traditional scenery of a novel I can remove and still keep the heart of the thing beating. I’m moving more toward subtraction than addition at this stage. Which isn’t to say that the next novel won’t be a big and baggy monster. You change all the time.
TM: How old are you now?
KB: I just turned 50. I had that significant birthday in June, and the novel is all about these two guys in their early 50s. It’s about one of those weird constellations that as you age you start to realize that the past isn’t a fixed entity. It keeps moving and shifting and rearranging itself back there. And this is the realization Maurice and Charlie have in the book—that things you thought meant one thing in your life meant something else. And it’s all going to keep moving. In a weird curious way, that’s one of the consolations of age. And also the book is about male friendship, which is written about weirdly rarely. It’s a really interesting subject, and when you’re doing two male friends talking a lot to each other, if you listen to what’s going on just beneath the surface, there are all these power battles.
It became clear to me after a while that what I was really writing was this portrait of a very strange extended family. When these two characters first showed up, they kept trying to get into short stories and they would immediately destroy the story because they’re too big. They were annoying me. I eventually realized I have to give these two fuckers their own thing and figure out who they are. I started off writing a play script but very quickly realized, no, it needed the kind of space a novel allows.
TM: The novel is on the longlist for the Booker Prize, and the shortlist comes out Sept. 3. I’m wondering, are you having kittens or is this just another day in the life of Kevin Barry?
KB: It’s a big prize, and when I was put on the longlist there was a lot more noise around it, much more so than with other book prizes I’ve been involved with. I’ve been mostly managing to distract myself and not think about it too much, but it certainly does creep into one’s thoughts. But it’s really cool for the book. It gives it a good push.
Bonus Link: Bill Morris’s 2015 interview with Kevin Barry that appeared in The Daily Beast.