A quiet night in the neighbourhood pub is shattered by the arrival of a sword-wielding fugitive. A brother and sister try to keep a family going for their younger sibling after their mother dies. A young woman picks up from hospital a friend “who had managed to once again step back from the ledge of himself”. Colin Barrett’s new collection of short stories, largely based in County Mayo, Ireland, are fluent, wry and moving. Winner of the Guardian First Book Award in 2014 for his first collection, his second, Homesickness, has been called a “mesmerisingly powerful book, full of the strangeness and beauty of life” by Sally Rooney.
Could you tell us how you put this collection of stories together? Were they written specifically for Homesickness or over a longer period of time?
They was no overarching theme in place in advance. As with most of my stories I started each with the kernel of a character or scene and little idea where the rest of it might go. But after several years I wrote more stories than the ones included in the collection. There was a cluster of stories, at least some of which seemed to speak to each other.
The dialogue’s a pleasure to read – the characters speak with an unforced but sophisticated articulacy and wit. Is that a West of Ireland thing?
Thank you. I don’t know if it’s specifically a West of Ireland thing. I do enjoy stories where characters meet and interact, which I guess means I enjoy writing dialogue. Dialogue is where I feel things come to a point in my stories. But the magical double-sidedness of dialogue is that articulacy is also, generally, a form of hiding in plain sight for my characters. In any case, when you know you are going to have, sometimes, up to half a dozen recurring speakers in a 6,000 word story or whatever, you have to be attentive in terms of giving each character a distinct voice. Anything that gets you to pay more attention as you write out a story is a good thing for a writer.
Without giving too much away, many of the stories don’t end exactly where the reader might initially expect them to, but nevertheless end fittingly. Do you know how they’re going to conclude when you start writing them?
Generally I have absolutely no idea. I very much enjoy taking a character, or, really, just the sense of a character, and fleshing things out in the composition. You can always restructure and reshape things after. My interests never extend initially beyond simply nailing a character/set of characters. I never think in terms of: “I’m going to write about theme X or Y.” It doesn’t work that way for me.
There’s a certain amount of back story going on for your characters but only enough, it seems, to keep them in the present. Is that a deliberate move to give them momentum?
Yes. Often, in earlier drafts, I try and include no exposition at all. You only learn the background of a character from contextual dialogue etc. Generally, an editor will later persuade me to put a bit in, to give the reader a more sure footing, and they are usually correct to tell me so. But I still like writing that way because it means the flow of “present action” has to have energy and momentum; so rather than just, for example, stating upfront a character lost their mother a year ago, can you show or articulate a sense of their ongoing grief through how they are acting and talking right now on the page?
In The Low, Shimmering Black Drone you write: “We were after all living in a time when what people wanted from writers was judgement.” How has the pandemic affected you, both in terms of the process of writing and themes of your current and perhaps future work?
There’s always a lag between what readers are reading and when things were actually written. So while that particular story was written during, and touches on, the pandemic, the other stories in Homesickness don’t, the simple reason being that the writing of most of them precedes the pandemic. But then The Silver Coast and The 10 were also written during the pandemic and they don’t touch upon it. I think I certainly said anything I wanted to say about the pandemic – which is almost nothing – in that story!
In terms of my day-to-day writing process, I don’t know. The pandemic brought about certain obligations you just had to deal with – kids being off at home from school for extended periods of time, etc – and I just had to try and accept that and keep the head down and write when I could.
Does the film of your earlier short story Calm with Horses look like you’d want it to?
The film people did such a good job with it. They really did make it its own thing, I think. In a literal sense they shot on location in the West of Ireland, so it looks like how it “should” look. But I remember the director Nick [Rowland] telling me about the alchemy of say, the casting process. They had strong ideas, of course, of the kind of actors they wanted, but then they too were often surprised or inspired by something during that process. The lead, Cosmo Jarvis, for instance, certainly looked like the kind of burly guy they wanted to play Arm, but he has these big, soft, brown eyes and brought a vulnerability to his interpretation of the character that fed back in to the eventual tone of the film.