Kevin Barry talks to Julia Brodsky about his prize- winning novel Beatlebone, set in “the haunted, sea-obsessed world” of Ireland’s Atlantic coast, and the “terrifying” prospect of writing a book about one of the 20th century’s greatest pop culture icons.
The University of London established the Goldsmiths Prize in 2013 to acknowledge fiction that pushed the boundaries of the novel form. Kevin Barry’s second novel, Beatlebone, which imagines John Lennon returning to Dorinish, the Mayo island he purchased years earlier, certainly remakes and expands the mold of what makes a novel, making it a worthy recipient of last year’s prize.
Barry’s Lennon offers glimpses of the musician’s real life while giving readers an entirely new, Irish version of the Beatle we all knew, and the novel itself moves between prose and play, blending monologue and dialogue. 200 pages in, though, comes the most audacious move of all: Barry himself enters the text with a personal essay that chronicles his own physical and emotional journey to Dorinish.
Born in Limerick and raised globally, Barry makes his home in an old police station in County Sligo, and writes with wickedly inventive language, creating his own brand of dark humor that frequently flirts with the disturbing. He won the 2013 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his first novel, City of Bohane.
You’ve said it’s impossible to hide in fiction, and a lot easier to hide in an essay – were you hiding at all in Beatlebone’s essay?
I don’t hide in it at all, because I think that if you’re writing a personal essay you have to give something away about yourself. And I found myself talking about my mother’s early death in that. I totally wasn’t expecting this material to show up in my John Lennon novel, but it struck me as absolutely right for the material; this is one of my ways into the character because he has a similar circumstance.
Is that how the project started?
It kind of came about in a funny accidental way. I thought this project was going to take six months – mad burst of wonderful, trippy prose and I’d be done, but four years later, I emerged, crawling, with the manuscript, from my shed. About a year in, I realized I had loads of different notes for it everywhere: on the backs of envelopes, on the backs of beer mats, on my phone. I thought, “I’m going to buy a lovely new notebook, and gather all my notes together in the same place.” And as I was transcribing them, I found that these really nice paragraphs were starting to form. I thought, “I’m gonna plunk this down right in the middle and see if I can walk out the door of my novel for 8,000 words and then walk back in again.”
The details from your journey mimic earlier parts of John’s, too.
I think a lot of writers now are a little impatient with fictionality – you always feel at some point that you kind of have to make explicit the fact: “I know it’s a novel. It’s made up. It’s a story.” And this was very blatantly showing the workings. It seemed right for this project because it’s a story about trying to make something – trying to make a record, a novel, or a book. The trick of the book is if the reader goes with the essay, they’ll go with the whole lot. It was also the part of the book that wrote itself most naturally and took very few drafts, compared to the rest of it, which took loads of drafts for those dialogues.
I’ve discovered it’s kind of like a radio play, an old-fashioned play for voices. The dialogues with John and Cornelius really are the engine of the book.
On the surface the characters are very different, but similarities emerge, and Cornelius becomes John’s spirit guide.
Yeah, and he’s tricky. You never quite know what he’s up to. The book started to come alive for me when Cornelius started to move towards the forefront and it became a double act, essentially, and when John had someone to play off. I realized then that it was a very kind of old-fashioned novel. It’s Don Quixote – tilting at windmills and then you’ve got your sidekick and you’re trying to answer all of life’s questions.
Saul Bellow used to always say he loved to have a character in his novels whom he would call the “reality instructor.” This is the guy or the girl who turns up and goes, “Now, this is how you do it. This is how you get through.” So Cornelius is the reality instructor, but it’s a very strange reality Cornelius is dealing with.
One of my favorite scenes is when John’s imagining the love story between his parents and the line, “Dead love stories are what make us.”
Yeah, the dead love stories that we kind of always have from our parents’ time, but we can’t help but get sucked back. I think we are all trapped in that time that comes just before our births – we get drawn back to it and try to imagine the world around then. I was actually born in June ’69, at the time of the Beatles’ last number one, which was “The Ballad of John and Yoko.” So that was in the atmosphere all around then.
John doesn’t mention Yoko’s name at all in the book.
No, she’s referred to, but I was trying to keep reality away from it to an extent and just have him on this madcap solo mission to the west of Ireland. Early on when I was starting to get a voice, I thought, “Okay, I could very easily do the standard ‘biopic’ here.” But I thought, “God, no.” I can’t imagine anything worse than writing a sane novel about John Lennon – it has to be fuckin’ nutty – surreal, wild, and crazy. I think in that way, I wanted it to be true to his spirit as the artist he was.
Have you been to Dorinish island?
I think I claim in the essay to have spent a day and a half there – I didn’t, really. I made it an hour and a half. But it’s beautiful. The terns nest on it and they lay these enormous, surreal-looking eggs around the rocks. And they don’t like humans to be on the island – they kind of dive-bomb you and it’s really loud – the last place on earth you’d want to build a meditative retreat.
In all of the things I write, the underlying thing is they always come from a place and the feelings that get trapped in different places. And I’ve always had this very kind of haunted feeling out around Clew Bay. There’s a kind of an eerie atmosphere to it.
The Atlantic comes into nearly everything I write, and it is a big presence when you live in the west of Ireland. It is a big thing, and it affects the mood, and it brings all the weather in, and yeah, I haven’t exactly figured out what it’s doing to us, but it certainly affects the mental atmosphere of the west of Ireland.
John Moriarty used to talk about this thing he used to call “happy feels” and “sad feels.” And you walk through one place and you feel something, because of human feeling that settles down and lingers. I completely believe that. I believe every street corner in New York has its own feeling.
I think as a writer, an artist, or a musician, you’re trying to tune into those feelings that are just below the level of what we call “reality.”
You’re also looking for little bits of serendipity or magic to happen around a project to tell you, “You’re on the right track.” And I had a lovely one with Beatlebone, quite late on, actually. Nearly finished the penultimate draft, and I had all the pages laid out around my shed, and I made coffee and went back out, and there was a black lizard crawling across the pages. So I immediately wrote a lizard into the text somewhere.
The lizard isn’t the only animal to pop up in your work. Where does that comes from?
I don’t know. So much of it comes from the back of your mind, your subconscious – I think you’re dealing with the same region of the brain when you’re writing fiction as you are when you’re dreaming – it all comes from ‘back there.’ And I try and tune into that as directly as I can, which is why I like to write first thing in the morning, before I’m properly awake. What I’m trying to do is not so much maintain control on the page, but lose control a bit, and just see where it goes, where I can bring myself, and, hopefully, bring a reader.
There are a lot of Beckettian and Joycean moments throughout the novel. Do you find yourself including those consciously?
Very often they’ll come in without your quite knowing it. Irish writing has this wonderful reputation, and so much of it is built on the work of three writers: Beckett and Joyce and Flann O’Brien in the first half of the 20th century.
There are two traditions in Irish writing, and it sounds a bit pat, but there’s Catholic writing and Protestant writing. It’s Beckett and Joyce. One is stained glass windows – ornate, ostentatious, and fuckin’ beautiful. And the other is take everything out – austere and beautiful in that way. I think for a lot of the second half of the 20th century, Irish writers were really caught about which direction to go. I do always admire that kind of third way – Flann O’Brien – taking the piss out of it all.
Did you listen to a fair amount of the Beatles and the Plastic Ono Band, as you were writing?
I’m kind of always listening to the White Album – it’s one of my favorite records – kind of a glorious mess. I did listen to some of his earlier solo records from around the time when he was very involved with Primal Scream therapy, and the Plastic Ono Band album is fantastic.
I don’t listen to music all the time when I’m writing, but sometimes it seems to help. I tend to listen to stuff that doesn’t have any lyrics, kind of electronica, dub reggae and things like that, just for kind of mood in the background. When I was writing City of Bohane, it was all dub reggae, and that sort of crept into the book. I’m going to write a second Bohane novel in the new year, so the dub reggae records will come back out.
Are you working on that now?
I’m going to start in the new year. I set all these weird kind of mystical dates. I’m going to start it on the winter solstice, and return on the summer solstice, six months later, with the tablets of stone. That’s the plan. I wrote the first one very quickly, actually. And I have that language. I have the city, I have the real estate. And I’m going to fucking use it. ♦