Though Canada has bookended Colin Barrett’s life to date – he moved back to his birthplace, Toronto, five years ago when his wife, a doctor, took a job at Sick Kids Hospital (one of their two children was born in Canada) – it’s the place where he spent his middle thirty years, County Mayo in the west of Ireland, that’s provided the wellspring for his fiction. Barrett’s debut short-story collection, Young Skins (2015), won a raft of coveted prizes, establishing him as an exceptional young writer in a country that has never wanted for literary talent. The eight sparkling, minimally plotted tales in his latest, Homesickness (McClelland & Stewart), easily cement that early hype. Like their predecessors, they foreground humour, and their author’s uncanny ear for dialogue and Irish vernacular. Barrett also has a novel forthcoming next year.
Your characters are all very different but tend to lack, for want of a better term, self-awareness.
I like writing about people who aren’t very interior. They don’t come from a place where you’re encouraged to talk a lot about your inner life. Which doesn’t mean you don’t have one, it just means maybe the language, certainly the opportunity to express it, isn’t always there. I like writing towards my characters. I don’t need to be inside their skin at the start. … The physical world, people interacting and talking with each other, social formations are, I think, just as telling about a character as anything they might be thinking inside.
Clark Blaise called the short story an expansionist form, in that it’s the most expanded statement you can make about an incident, while a novel is miniaturizing, because it’s the briefest thing you can say about a much larger incident. Does that resonate?
Short stories allow you a certain intensity. You’re trying to distill down or concentrate a character, because you can’t tell the whole life, but you can reveal their essence, put them through an incident or two. There’s a kind of magnification that happens. What’s really exciting to me about stories is the idea that I have a character and I have a premise and I don’t know how it’s all going to work itself out, but I trust that if I stay close enough to the material I’ll find something worthwhile. I’ve never minded writing and rewriting and editing. I don’t mind working slowly and I don’t mind going over a section until it’s right. I work very incrementally – I can see the rest of the story buried in there somewhere in incipient form. You just have to bring it out.
Short stories still struggle for respect in Canada, despite the fact that arguably our greatest writer, Alice Munro, almost exclusively writes them. Is it different in Ireland?
The short story is a form that all the biggest Irish writers have written, so it does tend to get respect. It obviously isn’t a commercial proposition. It doesn’t move units as easily, and readers sometimes don’t find them as immersive as a novel. My first publishers were The Stinging Fly Press, and they also run a literary magazine that’s huge if you’re an aspiring writer. It’s a place you want to get published. That was my biggest dream when I was 20. I was lucky that when I was wanting to write that right there in Ireland was a magazine and a community that I could write towards. I fell in love with the form. I think if I was trying to send stories off to the US or the UK, that would have felt a bit impossible.
Which writer first made you see the form’s possibilities?
Kevin Barry. I found his first book, There Are Little Kingdoms, in my college library and his stories just blew me away. He was writing about contemporary small-town Ireland in a way I hadn’t encountered in my fitful readings of Irish literature – fellas driving cars around town and getting in fights and stuff – and he did it with an experience of language; the stories felt really alive. He made me think okay, maybe you can do this.
You said you’re reading some different authors now as well. Any you’d like to mention?
John McGahern. I reread five or six years ago properly, and realized, yeah, I can see what everyone’s talking about here. In different phases of your life you’re going to be attracted to a certain type of writing, and it’s very normal for that to change and evolve. That’s what happened as I was writing Homesickness. I started reading Alice Munro heavily as well.
Critics have been keen to anoint you the literary representative of your patch of Ireland. Is that flattering? Pressurizing?
I’ll take any flattery going, don’t worry about that. There’s a huge amount of very talented writers in Ireland. It’s been a very vibrant scene – a lot obviously predating me – but when I was coming through in the last 10-12 years, there’s been so many good writers and lots of theories as to why …
… do you have one – a theory?
The general one going around was the 2008 financial crash totalled the employment prospects for a lot of young Irish people, so a lot of them sat down and wrote books. I think a lot would have been doing it anyway. There’s big names in Mayo at the moment. I’ll go visit a village and the older people there have read everything. They want to have really sophisticated conversations about writing. It’s wonderful.
The sole Toronto-set story in Homesickness doesn’t feel like a “Toronto” story, partly because the main character is Irish, but also because it’s set during the pandemic so its world feels small, hermetic. And the rhythms of Irish speech are so intrinsic to your work that it’s hard to imagine you writing in North American vernacular. Do you think your stories will migrate here, as you have, or does the distance from Ireland provide you with a certain clarity?
If a story comes to me and happens to be set here and I think there’s something to it I would pursue it, but I don’t think I’m going to write from the perspective of a native Torontonian or anything. The rhythms of how people talk and the way they think and the grammar all just sinks down into your bones in those early years. I enjoy writing the way I write about the people I write about, and the vernacular. It’s generative, it’s exciting. Writing’s often slow and difficult and painful, but when you can catch those rhythms and you know you’ve got something there … it’s a very intuitive process. The pandemic allowed me to write about Toronto as a kind of shadowy, spectral place. The characters are kind of scurrying around from empty house to empty house. Kevin Barry has a theory that an experience takes about 11 years to go through and creatively metabolize before you can start writing about it. It’s a very specific number, I’m not sure where he got it. I’ve been in Toronto five years and I still feel like I’m new to the city, so it would be very premature, presumptuous of me.
You did this mentorship with Colm Toibin through the Rolex-sponsored mentor-and-protégé initiative. What was that like?
Colm is a wonderful person. He’s a great writer, obviously, but he was so open and approachable, accessible. We weren’t in the same country for most of it, but Rolex facilitated us meeting regularly. I was working on my novel and these stories at the time, and he talked very openly and honestly about his own work and the pains of writing, the pains of composition, and I would listen.
Tell me about this novel you’ve written.
It takes place in the west of Ireland – it’s about a kidnapping there is all I’ll say – and it was long and slow and arduous. I’m not looking for pity, that’s just how it is. I figured out how to write okay stories, but there was no guarantee I could write a novel. So I wrote it and rewrote it and I learned as I went along. Talking to Colm was very illuminating. Not that he had a magic key he could give me: he would just talk about his own work and books that he struggled with in the past. It was hard and slow. And I would write badly. I write badly almost all the time. I write slowly almost all the time, and I throw stuff out all the time. It’s not any different, but I just keep at it because I know in the end I’ll get there.
This interview has been edited and condensed
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