May 13, 2012

AWRF 2012: An hour with Sebastian Barry

Maybe it's because Jan Cronin, who was interviewing him, is so delectably fine-boned, but the first thing I noticed about Sebastian Barry is how he seems to have such a massive head, a 19th century head, I kept thinking, the kind that you would see emerging from a white shirt with a big white cravat flowing between velvet jacket lapels.

Halfway through the hour, it occurred to me. Oscar Wilde, that was it, he resembles Oscar Wilde, only without the languid look and air of superiority. The oracle-like pauses which punctuate his speech, moreover, do not lead to witty epigrams but to thoughtful considerations, served up with self-deprecating humour. When Jan slips in something about his "process" he complains, "It makes me sound like a cheese." Or, my favourite, at the end of a long reply: "I don't know if that answers your question because to be quite honest I don't remember the question".

Most of the talk centered on his new novel On Canaan's Side, whose main character Barry imagined forth from just a couple of facts he knew about a relative, an aunt or great-aunt or similar, more or less that she had emigrated to America, and that she had returned. He describes what he did with her as giving her a voice. "The people I'm most interested in are the chancy ones, those people who have no narrative. I'm making up a narrative for them."

We get a sample of the voice he has given her. He is asked to read an excerpt from the book, and he walks to the front of the stage and gives us first a five minute monologue full of asides and disclaimers about being involved in the theatre because of his plays, but never as an actor, and then suddenly launches into a fantastic impersonation of an 89 year old Irishwoman, right down to the balled up fists as she rails, telling the story of the day long ago when her brand-new husband was shot and killed before her eyes.

We are all hugely impressed. "How do you find the voice?" Jan asks. "How does it find you?" he replies.

He talks about why he has so often drawn on members of his family, from earlier generations, for his books. "My sister and I were sort of veterans of our childhood, and my mother was a veteran of hers. My father was one of those existentialists who didn't believe in history. I went looking for some background that wasn't toxic and I found it in these people who had lived in the twenties and the thirties. Ecce homo. It's good to have ancestors, even if I had to make them up."

There was a story told from the heart about the time he bent the rules and used someone who was still alive, and not only, who had been very close to him, with whom he had lived, even shared a bed, as the basis for a novel --his grandfather. When the book came out, he says, "There he was in his flat on Appian Way in Dublin, seeing his mystery laid out for everyone to see." No one likes that, and his grandfather was no exception. "He never spoke to me again."

"The ordinary human being," Sebastian Barry says, "would not hurt another human being, but a writer is a different kettle of fish."

Ditulis Oleh : tosca // 03:00


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