According to Sebastian Barry, once you reach 60 years old, you may write without fear.
Sebastian Barry, age 68, is an acclaimed writer with 11 novels and 15 plays under his belt. Five of his books have been nominated for the Booker prize, and he has received numerous awards, such as the Costa book of the year (twice) and the Walter Scott prize for his historical fiction. From 2018 to 2021, he was recognized as the laureate for Irish fiction. His most recent novel, Old God’s Time, centers on the struggles of a retired policeman named Tom Kettle, as he grapples with the aftermath of institutional child abuse in Ireland. The book has been praised as “a remarkable display of transcendent power and complexity”. Born in Dublin, Barry currently resides in a renovated rectory in the mountains of County Wicklow, Ireland.
Was returning to Ireland and experiencing the passage of time governed by the Old God feel like a homecoming?
I was apprehensive about returning home after spending two books [Days Without End and A Thousand Moons] in America, which was a joyful and relaxing experience for me. While it was technically coming home, I was a bit hesitant because I had been avoiding the harsh reality of how we treat children in this country. However, I eventually found the courage to write about it after turning 60 and feeling a sense of freedom to fearlessly explore a topic that is inherently fearful.
Are there specific mental states that are required in order to write the distressing scenes included in the book?
I had come to that state of mind. The issue is not just the existence of child abuse in Ireland. It’s more about what steps are taken afterwards. How does one continue living? When faced with extreme hopelessness, the inclination is to escape from the world. As someone who has battled with depression at times, I didn’t want to engage in anything that would worsen my mental state and make it difficult for me to move forward.
Even though the topics are vastly different, this is now your third consecutive novel that grips readers and keeps them turning pages. What inspired this change?
This is a form of forgiveness for being older. You may think, “I am 68 years old and have around 20 years left to live.” However, it is uncertain how much of that time will be spent dealing with physical ailments, and how many years are left for work. This realization can actually benefit your work by reducing self-consciousness. However, the uncontrollable drive to create a book cannot be explained… I appreciate the term “page-turner” because it implies that the book has a life of its own, and that I have successfully translated it from my bewildered mind onto paper.
Do you currently have a preference for writing novels over plays?
The previous performance was On Blueberry Hill and it made its way to the West End, which I had never been to before. I was extremely thrilled! Unexpectedly, Graham Norton wanted to have a conversation with me. To be truthful, I found it incredibly captivating. However, three days later, the UK went into lockdown due to Covid and everything came to a halt. What I am attempting to convey is that I have struggled with theatre and have had a few setbacks. Nevertheless, I am unsure if I have completely abandoned it.
Are you skilled at analyzing your own writing? Do you feel unfulfilled in your desire to perform?
This is my performance and I am no longer feeling frustrated. I enjoy reading to an audience and I am dedicated to working hard. As Dylan said, I make sure to know my song well before I begin singing. I also incorporate bits of songs that relate to the book. The expectations for writers performing are not high, so even putting in a small effort is appreciated.
During a lecture as a distinguished Irish fiction writer, you mentioned the excitement of receiving a fan letter from Harold Pinter. Has anything else compared to that experience?
In 2018, an extensive article discussing Barry’s work was published in the New York Review of Books by Robert Gottlieb, a prominent figure in American literature known for renaming Catch-18 to Catch-22. Despite never meeting in person, Gottlieb and Barry exchanged lengthy emails. When Barry completed his novel, Old God’s Time, he decided to send it to Gottlieb via email. Gottlieb had a rule of responding within three days to writers, as they could pass away at any moment. A few days later, Barry received a magical email from Gottlieb praising the book, providing reassurance for the publication process.
What factors contribute to the recent resurgence and triumph in Irish literature?
The current era is a flourishing time for both writing and reading. There are dedicated and passionate readers who serve as great inspiration. This has fostered an environment where writers have confidence in their ability to achieve success, as there is a receptive audience. While some may feel envious of their talented peers, there is also a sense of fulfillment in knowing that this is the purpose of their craft. For example, Claire Kilroy’s book Soldier Sailor brought me joy and reminded me of the value of my own existence. Similarly, Joseph O’Connor’s book about actors, Shadowplay, was a delightful read. And then there are rare instances of brilliance, such as Claire-Louise Bennett’s work.
Did you have a habit of reading during your childhood?
I was unable to read until I reached the age of eight. Meanwhile, my sister had been reading since she was only four, which was quite frustrating for me. My father had a mobile bookshelf filled with Penguin books, lined up in rows. Although I didn’t know what they were at the time, I could sense their significance. Once I became interested, I began using my allowance to purchase a Puffin book every week or so.
Where is your writing location?
I am employed in this location, specifically in the former office of the head of the institution. I have heating equipment situated in one corner, along with my grandfather’s written records and a selection of his artwork. There is also a photograph of my spouse from her early days in the theater world, so stunning that I often attempt to avoid glancing at it. Additionally, there is a curtain adorned with pineapples for some unknown reason. Lastly, there is a poster advertising Boss Grady’s Boys, the play that achieved the incredible feat of covering our rent. No longer did we need to hide under the bed when our landlord arrived.
The paperback version of Sebastian Barry’s Old God’s Time is available from Faber for £9.99. To help the Guardian and Observer, you can purchase your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Additional fees may apply for delivery.