My wife tossed The New Yorker on to the tabletop, You have to read this short story, she said. I did. And the rhythm of the language and the force of the story led me on the rampant search for more. The author was an Irish writer named Kevin Barry whose work consists of two short story collections, There are Little Kingdoms and Dark Lies the Island, and one novel, The City of Bohane, which has been praised by one critic as “The best novel to come out of Ireland since Ulysses."
Wunderkammer: The American writer David Foster Wallace, when asked about what fiction should be and mean, responded that "fiction is what it means to be a fucking human being.” And in response to a question about the state of American poetry, he surmised that "...it'll come awake again when poets start speaking to people who have to pay the rent, and fuck the same woman for thirty years.” I bring Wallace up because I think your work really speaks to the person who has to "pay the rent," so to speak; there's a kind of visceral music of the everyday in your stories that I truly enjoy. But why do you write fiction? What does it mean to you? When all the fleeting desires for fame and mammon (we all have them) disappear, what gets you up in the morning to embark on a struggle with the pen, to agonize over every word?
Kevin Barry: Well there’s an interesting start. After you’ve been writing fiction for a while, actually, an odd thing happens – it becomes less the thing you do and more the thing you are. Your ambition, or your desire to get things onto a page, or your writerly need – call it whatever – has made a deal or pact with your subconcious (which is where all fiction happens) and it constantly plants material back there for your subconscious to work on and process. So after a time it has become really an involuntary thing. It becomes sort of a bodily function, if that’s not too unpleasant a way to describe it. Writing fiction, I would also say, is my primary function as a human being – it’s one of the very few things that I can (on a good day) do reasonably well. Meantime I should point out that my desires for fame and mammon have by no means disappeared. I write for money and any writer who doesn’t is a fool. One other point on this – not every day at the desk is agony, and it’s not all balling-up-the-pages in the classic writer-biopic fashion, and it’s not always a death-struggle; there are the good days where things are moving with relative ease, and these are worth a lot.
WK: Of course, writers need to eat! Part of the problem I feel with modern technology is that everyone expects artists to work for free; and if they do express a desire to get paid, this somehow connotes that they are opportunistic scumbags not totally devoted to their art, and so on. (This is the subject of Jaron Lanier’s newest work Who Owns the Future, a work you might find of interest.) Anyway, one of my favorite passages from your newest collection, Dark Lies the Island, comes from the story Fjord of Killary: “And the view was suddenly clear to me. The world opened out to its grim beyonds and I realised that, at forty, one must learn the rigours of acceptance. Capitalise it: Acceptance. I needed to accept what was put before me – be it a watery grave in Ireland's only natural fjord, or a return to the city and its greyer intensities, or a wordless exile in some steaming Cambodian swamp hole, or poems or no poems, or children or not, lovers or not, illness or otherwise, success or its absence. I would accept all that was put in my way, from here on through until I breathed my last. Electrified, I searched for my notebook.” I often feel that if I could achieve this kind of acceptance a whole lot of anxiety would just fall off, it just seems so nearly impossible to achieve. What is your character trying to say here? Do you think this kind of acceptance is a good thing, something to be sought after? Does it mean anything to you?
KB: The expectation that because something is online it should be free is disastrous and destructive for all artists and writers, and this expectation is widespread and cross-generational. It may be leading to a hideous age of the-artist-as-amateur, a shmuck who has to work at other things to survive. It’s something I talk a bit about in my essay The Skin of Anxiety. Fjord of Killary is really about a man who’s belatedly growing up. He’s an arch and snooty poet who buys an ailing hotel in the west of Ireland, and he grows increasingly dismayed and disgusted with the local clientele – he views them as savages, essentially. But I wanted to show that the locals are at least comfortable in their own skins, while our poet friend is most certainly not. The story is set on a night when apocalyptic floodwaters rise and threaten the hotel … Looking at the story now, a few years after writing it, I guess those floodwaters are metaphorical for the tides of anxiety rising about the poet. His ephiphanous discovery that Acceptance is the key to all that ails us is certainly something I would agree with, but Acceptance is of course easier said than done. I think the French are good at it. The Irish? Not so much! Anxiety, again – it may be emerging as the central theme of 21st century literature.
WK: The "everything for free" idea is really a lose/lose situation, for both the artist and the one who enjoys art. The problem arises when the reader begins to lose the ability to actually make a value judgment. Gone are the days, for example, when I actually had to choose between buying this or that album over another simply because there was a limit to how much I could afford, and therefore a limit to what I could actually listen to. The result was that I became deeply involved in what I had bought. Over time I was able to become a better judge of what it was I loved because I'd actually lived with the art long enough to have something to say about it. The art became part of me, for better or worse. Now I'm a nervous wreck on Spotify that can hardly even listen to an album more than two or three times (if I'm lucky) before moving on to some other fleeting novelty glittering past my eyes. There is just way too much stuff out there. The result is that my brain often enters that bewildered, incapacitated state that is unable to choose rightly to what I should give my attention. I'm quite convinced that if my generation makes it through this onslaught of information both alive and sane, it will prove to be a feat of will unmatched in the history of human existence. Speaking of the inability to choose what's worthy to think about, I'm reminded of a couple lines from your story "Cruelty" where Donie is having anxiety attacks because the train departed at 9:34 rather than 9:33, yet he is "whistling past the graveyard." I feel deep down in my bowels that my generation and I are anxiously paying attention to trivialities — like the train leaving a minute late — all the while forgetting the graveyard, that someday we will be a rotting corpse and that maybe, just maybe, we should think a little bit harder about what we are giving our attention to. I don't mean that we should be morbidly obsessed with death, only that instead of being obsessed with managing and controlling the allusive prodigality of time, we should heed with more mindfulness – momento mori, as a wiser age put it – the impending event that harkens the end of our time. Perhaps if we were able to come to terms with time as the horizon of our being, rather than, say, one more restless fact of life we should attempt to control, we may find some kind of Acceptance that is a union of attention and awareness. Do you find it difficult to navigate your attention amid the deluge of information? Do you have any "rules" you keep in order to be "present" as a writer? Do you think that fiction, and in particular fiction that has as its subject the anxiety of modern life, can help reshape our desires for what is truly worth thinking about? — whatever that may be....
KB: I totally sympathize and empathize with your sense of being “a nervous wreck on Spotify,” and that’s quite a neat summation, actually, of what it feels like to be at large in the drone culture at present. The great danger is that content begins to morph and becomes indistinguishable – there’s so fucking much of it; who wrote that, who sang that, who filmed that, does it matter? – and the individual artist disappears, and this hive-mind set-up (where nobody gets paid, essentially) becomes the norm and begins to take over. Informational overload has obviously by now turned us into a race of creatures with the attention spans of tiny frogs. Too much Internet, too many devices, too many bleeps and tweets – all of these fracture the consciousness in very dangerous ways, and the blithe acceptance that all technological development is for the good is really, at this advanced point in human disrepair, hysterically dim. Clearly, our beloved literature could very well shrivel up and die because of all this, and this could happen surprisingly soon. The publishing industry is having a collective panic attack and is rushing to embrace all sorts of nonsensical online endeavors when it should be doing the precise opposite – it should be standing firm against the moronic tide. It should be saying look, stop, all this is in fact garbage – read fucking books and pay the fucking writers. As regards my own attention span and concentrational abilities? I’m as much pond life by now as anyone else is, but I do try, I make an effort – on a dreary pragmatic level, this involves me not going online in the mornings. If I reach to the bedside table first thing and start checking email, that’s pretty much it, I’m in flitty online mode for the day, and I won’t get any work done. So I don’t go online now until the afternoon, and this means that I still get some work done. I don’t want it to be all doom-and-gloom here – I do believe that humans still need and will continue to need stories, and we just have to get through the sea of distractions (somehow) and deliver them.
WK: Alright, if you were spending the next ten years in solitary confinement, and you had five minutes to choose five books, what would you bring?
KB: Five Books ...
Collected Stories by V.S. Pritchett because he's mad and vivacious and notices everything and he puts all things in a kind of crazed perspective, and because he knows intuitively what a short story is and what it can do. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte which I'm sure all creative-writing types would be able to prove is an appalling novel but which has strange enduring power and a beautiful hauntedness and a really gorgeous framing device. 2666 by Roberto Bolano which is an awesome piece of narrative art, capable of changing how we see and process the world, and which has a lovely glamour to its sentences, along with a formidable page-turning engine. James Joyce by Richard Ellman is the greatest literary biography of all time and gives us the four-eyed whingy money-squandering lascivious self-abusing genius in all his shabby glory; he is pinned and mounted to the pages here, and with us forever. Coasting by Jonathan Raban, a book about boats, and water, and loneliness, and England, and the 80s; an amazing piece of narrative non-fiction that can be read over and over and over....