Dublin breakout writer Colin Barrett talks to Julia Brodsky about his angst- and anguish-ridden debut short story collection, Young Skins.
Colin Barrett’s debut collection of short stories, Young Skins (Black Cat), hit the Dublin scene in 2013 and earned the 32-year-old Mayo native a score of major accolades, including the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Guardian First Book Award, and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. The book made its way to the United States in March 2015, and has now received critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, including praise from The New York Times, Colum McCann, Colm Tóibín, and Anne Enright. American author Sam Lipsyte put it most succinctly, saying, “Young Skins knocked me on my ass.”
Barrett, who attended University College, Dublin, sets his collection of six short stories and one novella in the small fictional Mayo town of Glanbeigh, modeled on his native Ballina.
“I am young, and the young do not number many here, but it is fair to say we have the run of the place,” says the narrator of the first story, setting the focus for the collection. As a whole, Young Skins centers mainly around young – often immature – men, their frustrations, their friendships, and their failings. A menace of violence looms over the stories, but, with a few exceptions, does not manifest in the plot.
Sitting down with Julia Brodsky at New York University’s Glucksman Ireland House on the occasion of the book’s U.S. launch, Barrett spoke about the unexpected success of his collection, how he crafts his stories, and, naturally, the novel that’s up next.
Are you surprised by the success of the book?
Oh yeah, of course. The conventional wisdom is that short stories, especially debut collections, are hard to get published, significantly harder than a novel. And then in terms of attention and visibility, they’re always a long shot, as well. I certainly didn’t have any real expectations beyond wanting to publish a collection, and I consider it incredibly lucky that this small publisher, Stinging Fly Press, was going to do it. I was expecting maybe a couple of weeks of attention in Ireland and that might be it. Everything thereafter has been a remarkable surprise, and I am aware of just how unusual it is that it’s been getting 14 to 15 months of steady attention from Ireland to the U.K. and in Europe, as well, and now it’s the U.S. It’s been amazing in that respect and I’m appreciative of it.
Why short stories, as opposed to a novel?
I fell in love with the form. I tried writing novels before – I also love the form and it’s one I am returning to now. I was always reading a lot when I was a teenager, but that was poetry and just novels and other stuff – not short stories. And then I kind of discovered them latterly, and kind of realized that they were still alive and thriving in their own way, with magazines and journals. So that kind of acted as a spur that you could actually write – and that there were people actually publishing – short stories. It’s not always the most visible thing, even in Ireland, which has a good tradition of them. I basically did what I considered my best writing in that form because I loved it and my writing was reflecting that.
What is it about the short story that makes you feel you are doing your best writing?
I love the attention to language, the integratedness of the material. Everything has to count in the short story – it’s a really tight form. You have to distill the thing down into its essence. All of those technical aspects really appeal to me, and the best examples of short stories really just affected me as a reader in a way that certainly was as good as anything.
Can you pinpoint a couple of short stories that have really been formative?
Well, I mean, the three or four writers I read that made me really want to write short stories are: Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, Flannery O’Connor, Irish writer Kevin Barry – he had a collection out in 2007 that resonated purely because it was another Irish person, more or less my age, speaking of an Ireland that I could recognize, and yet turning it into something else and something very interesting. Purely on a practical and local level that resonated with me, that oh, Irish writers can do this, too! They were kind of the first three, I think, and since then my reading kind of deepened, widened, and there are so many writers now I have a big debt to.
What is a typical writing day for you right now?
I don’t think I have any secret method that no one else has. I do a lot of procrastinating, a lot of not-writing, but I sit down and I try to take an hour or two to get into it gently. I’m happy if I can get a couple of hours of new writing done. I mean, I write new stuff now and then, but the bulk of each day is probably just rewriting and editing – moving around words that are already there on a Word document– that’s it. And I love doing it. I have a high tolerance and a high aptitude for just revising and revising.
What gives you the idea for a story? Is it a character, a moment, a piece of dialogue?
I mean, it could be any of these things, I think. You have to get the little details really credible and accurate and right, and if you get that right, no matter how preposterous something is in a story, the reader will actually buy it and go along with it, as long as those little details have established the texture of the world in a sort of way that people can understand. So I just work on the small scale, sentence by sentence.
Can you talk me through a starting point of one of your stories?
I think if I were to try and look for a pattern, I guess I’m visually inclined. I don’t necessarily start with dialogue – I usually start describing the character, you know, their inhabiting a physical space or completing a physical action. I know some people may start with a voice and then work to the physical world. But I start with building a physical picture of the character and the immediate vicinity of the world they’re in. And then working outwards.
Was writing from a mostly male perspective a conscious decision?
It was something I became conscious of while I was writing – these are all guys! You know, I tried other perspectives and for one reason or another, they just weren’t as good as some of the ones with the males. Being honest about it, I think it was just a limitation, but again, I think you have to take the best material and go with it.
So, in that sense, there’s some sort of buried anguish in doing all these things. You’re always aware of what you’re not able to do when you’re doing something, but nonetheless, you do have to work with the tools that are at your disposal. Zadie Smith just said something very simple about it, “Writers write what they can write.” In the end, these male-centric stories, these youngish men, were what was working best for me.
I certainly tried insofar as I could with the female characters in it – I wanted to make sure they had agency and depth and weren’t just plot devices. But I wanted to avoid that with the male characters, as well, because writing about bouncers, or thugs, or lowlives can also come across as simplistic or reductive.
There’s this theme of close male friendships in the book – is that something that is at all autobiographical?
It wasn’t a conscious thing. Again, it was another thing I observed I was doing, but it really seemed like it was an important thing to help the stories. I feel that with being a man and having male friendships – men can be very limited in a way, the way they present themselves to the world, so I felt like I needed one of the guys to put the other one into context – to show the other aspects of the second person that they themselves wouldn’t have been able to show directly. Because they are characters who don’t maybe tend toward introspection, the way you show what they really are is through the eyes of someone else. And male friendship is a funny thing, of course, because so much is not said, and men have as much interiority as anyone else, and they don’t want it, you know? That was my half-assed idea, anyway.
Is the violence in the book common in a small “everytown” in Mayo?
I don’t think it is. It is something to do with maleness, with teenaged men and boys, you know, they get stuck in these little groups and because you have nothing, you get in these little territorial disputes over nothing, of course, but it’s a way of grafting meaning onto your circumstances, to sort of have these limits and borders and if anyone crosses them, you know, you’re gonna give it to them. And then it’s just the mindless expressions of complete frustration, as well. It was definitely something I was fascinated by and wanted to write about. The strange thing is, Mayo probably isn’t a very statistically violent place, but in some small towns, that menace can pervade.
Do you see yourself setting more stories and maybe your novel in Glanbeigh?
Probably not Glanbeigh, per se, but that kind of world, that kind of small town and the borders of it and the hinterlands. It’s still an exciting place to write about and to have a new take on. I know a lot of writers essentially write versions of the same book, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I think often, it’s one of those paradoxical things – your focus, if you keep it tight you can see more than what was immediately apparent and it’s a way of reaching in more original places. So I’m not afraid of staying in that milieu, necessarily, but I’d only consider it of worth if I could find something new – a new register, a new perspective. I do want to do something different – not radically different – but different. ♦
Julia Brodsky is working on a Master’s degree in Irish studies at NYU, focusing on modern and postmodern Irish literature. She interviews Colin Barrett for this issue. She is from Philadelphia and now lives in Brooklyn.