Stamboul Train: An Entertainment (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics)

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I’m a Stained-Glass Guy: The Millions Interviews Kevin Barry

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.

The Millions: The last time we spoke, you were in New York flogging your novel Beatlebone. Remember?

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.

KB: Okay.

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.

The Things My Books Carried

I am in the habit of slipping objects between the pages of whatever book I am reading: sometimes to mark a place, more often because a book is the safest place I know for letters or receipts or tickets or whatever I need to bring with me somewhere.

I have carried books for over two decades of adult life now, years spent largely in Illinois and New York, but also on vacations and trips that go much farther afield. Earlier this month, I went through every book in our Manhattan apartment to see what I could discover.  This meant flipping pages in roughly 700 books, mostly novels, but also poetry books, memoirs, and essays, searching for pieces of my own history.

The Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy

A slim copy request slip from Columbia’s writing program, circa 1999. I was workshopping my first novel and adjusting to life in New York City. McCarthy’s rustic prose was like a postcard from the woodsy plain in Michigan where I grew up. On the flip side of the slip, a handwritten list of obscure words in the text I admired — slewed, purl, wale, rictus — words that, alas, I then tried to jam into my own doomed manuscript.

The Blue Estuaries by Louise Bogan

Torn strips of paper mark dozens of poems that I liked as an undergraduate at Northwestern, back when I wanted to be a penniless poet when I grew up. I remember announcing this career path to my parents one chilly bright autumn afternoon while we milled outside Ryan Field before a football game. They took the news remarkably well. Today, I remember nothing of what drew the 20-year-old me to poems like “The Frightened Man” or “Betrothed.”

John Adams by David McCullough

A full sheet (minus one) of Forever Stamps from the U.S. Post Office. The picture on the stamps: the Liberty Bell, of course

Stamboul Train by Graham Greene:

Two colorful ticket stubs, mementoes from an official starting point of my own: Flight 438 from Lisbon to Paris on May 30, 2004, Seats 23E and 23F, one for me and one for my wife, Raina, on the flight back home from our honeymoon.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

The business card of a Vice President of Strategy for Razorfish, a major Internet consultancy in the ‘00s — and perhaps the strangest bedfellow possible for a book about Stalinist oppression. But these were my late-20s, a time of routine contradictions, when I fancied myself a professional Web geek by day but a self-serious failed novelist at the night.

Christine Falls by John Banville (writing as Benjamin Black)

The inspection certificate for our brand new Toyota RAV-4 from May 6, 2009. Despite having sworn never to have a car in the city again, Raina and I leased the Toyota because our daughter was two and we wanted to improve our ability to flee for the suburbs and the helpful hands of her parents whenever our nascent parenting skills failed us.

A Multitude of Sins by Richard Ford

A small card reminding me that I have a haircut on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2006 at 6 p.m. on Waverly Street. A decade later I still get my hair cut at the same place, though I now prefer Thursdays.

Devil’s Dream by Madison Smartt Bell

The floor plan for the apartment that Raina and I moved into in 2011, right before our son — our second child — was born. Our new neighborhood’s streets were littered with more trash than our previous, and car alarms would trumpet the start of the work day for livery drivers at 6 a.m., but the apartment felt big enough for all four of us, plus our dog, and in New York City having enough space means having everything.

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell

A yellow Post-It note that says “Waverly and Mercer” and “penne and chocolato,” written in my hand. I know I met many friends near the intersection of these two Village streets over the years — before we’d get pints of Belhaven at Swift or maybe cheap margaritas at Caliente Cab Company — but the meaning has gone just as those friends have left for Westport, Conn., or Chicago, Ill., or wherever friends go.

Love Always by Anne Beattie; Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin; Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre; and many more.

For 10 years, from 2003 through 2013, I commuted from New York to New Jersey each day — an hour each way. I used to tell people that I didn’t mind, because I had so much time to read books. And it’s true, I did a lot of reading then. But I did mind. I slipped three off-peak round trip passes for New Jersey Transit trains in the Beattie; 4 more receipts and three canceled tickets in the Baldwin; and, in the Sartre, six receipts, more than six round trips, perhaps a signal of how hard I worked to find joy in that joyless fusion of philosophy and fiction.

The Stranger by Albert Camus

A greeting card and a blank envelope. The card has a cartoon king on the cover and inside it says, “You rule!” There is nothing else written anywhere.

City of Glass by Paul Auster; A Rage to Live by John O’Hara; God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut; This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff; The 9/11 Commission Report; Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson; Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima; and on and on.

During that long commuting decade, I often took not just the New Jersey Transit train but also a local tram in Newark. To ride the Downtown line, I had to buy a lavender ticket from a machine at the top of a long escalator. On the platforms at select stops, conductors would surprise commuters and demand proof that we each had used the ticket punch clocks to validate our 50-cent passes. I find these lavender alibis slipped in the pages of dozens and dozens of books.

A Separate Peace by John Knowles

Inside this hardcover I find the phone number for a taxi company and words written in Spanish: Buena Vista Villas en la picinade abajo. Also, a receipt for a $26 car ride. I know that Raina and I were in Costa Rica for my brother’s wedding in 2005. But I don’t speak or write Spanish. And I don’t know where the taxi brought us.

The Master of Petersburg by J.M. Coetzee

A full-color 3×2 photo strip. Two duplicates of a portrait still from my daughter’s kindergarten year, her tiny face smiling out, forever five years old. I brought this book with me when I went to a writer’s retreat for a week in 2013. I tried but failed to engage in the Coetzee, never finished it. Spent a lot of time looking at the little girl.

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

A piece of notebook paper from 1999 with phrases from the text that I liked (“the smell of lavender,” “like a person who is listening to a sea-shell held to her ear”), and a toll-free telephone number. I dial the telephone digits now, curious, but a recording says the number is no longer in service.

The Triumph of Achilles by Louise Glück

There is, technically, nothing in this book. But it is hardly empty. I can still find the poem marked with a hard diagonal line at the page corner, as if the paper were folded over a knife. “Sooner or later you’ll begin to dream of me,” the poem promises. “I don’t envy you those dreams.” A haunting line called out by an ex-girlfriend who borrowed the book after we broke up. Two decades later, the curse has yet to come true.

Atonement by Ian McEwan

A tiny, white, blank, one-inch-by-a-half-inch Post-It note.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

A Polaroid taken last year when it was my son’s turn to be in kindergarten: We are seated together in his classroom on a morning I don’t precisely remember — just as, I suppose, the father in The Buried Giant cannot quite recall his own son — although anyone can see this moment still matters by the bright and radiant looks on our faces. And will always matter, I like to think. Even if that’s not possible to prove.

After I finished this long walk through the books of the last 20 years, I asked myself whether I should leave the found objects or take them out. Should I strip the books clean for whoever comes through next — perhaps for my children when they are adults, if their taste in books resemble mine at all? Or shall I leave the objects more or less where I found them, a story-within-the-stories that tells the tale of one reader’s life for anyone who cares to sleuth out the details? This wasn’t a hard decision, as you’d guess. The objects go back. The page turns.

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