Quite like his characters, Kevin Barry is an eloquent and energetic speaker, who loves to lash on the foul language. This became quite clear in a recent Irish Times interview, where the judicious use of asterisks gave it the appearance of a sensitive wartime document. With Beatlebone, his second novel, Barry took the decision to write in the expletive-heavy voice of John Lennon. The book fictionalises an attempt by the former Beatle to reach his island in Clew Bay for a spot of Primal Screaming, with his trusty driver Cornelius O’Grady on hand to steer him clear of paparazzi. Barry’s great gift for dialogue is seen in the convincing representation of Lennon’s speech, with Beatlebone receiving the 2015 Goldsmith Prize as a result, an award reserved for daring experimental fiction.
Each of Barry’s books has met with considerable success. City of Bohane, his first novel, was released in 2011, and received the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award two years later. The first of two short story collections, There are Little Kingdoms, picked up the Rooney Prize in 2007, and the short story ‘Beer Trip to Llandudno’ from his second collection, Dark Lies the Island, secured the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award in 2012.
Before electing to write full-time, Barry held down several freelance gigs for newspapers like the Irish Examiner and the Guardian. It wasn’t long before journalism started to leave him unfulfilled though. “I knew I wasn’t using the part of my brain that I wanted to use, the murky, self-conscious place where fiction and drama happens. I had to get poor for a while and just write loads of awful fiction before I started to get anywhere.”
That necessary deprivation was actually what prompted the move to Sligo. “Keep your overheads low is the best advice for a writer. Someone said Leitrim is cheap, so we went to look at a place – the only thing missing was the noose – then in Sligo we saw the barracks. It was in poor enough nick but we immediately thought ‘Aw grand’.”
Beatlebone opens with a quote from John McGahern, and the writer’s home is in similar surroundings. “It’s very similar building and era to the McGahern barracks actually. They built them well, big thick stone walls… I was hoping there’d be fucking ghosts. Not a flicker, in the seven years *[we’ve lived there]* – to my horror!”
Barry places real value on variety when it comes to writing, which can be seen in his output. His novels are radically different, but his command of a range of styles is best seen with his short stories. “I like unpredictable writing careers, where you’re never sure what the next novel is going to be. I also believe that I don’t have a single style. The story and the subject dictate the style, rather than vice-versa. I’m hoping to unnerve myself in some way.”
City of Bohane, set 50 years in the future, follows Gangs of New York-style tribes vying for dominance, where the use of a knotty type of slang, like a Gaelic Nadsat, is widespread. The dialect Barry developed was singled out specifically for praise, but its origins are quite surprising: “I didn’t realise that doing cub reports and council meetings in Limerick around 1990 would really help me write City of Bohane 20 years later. So much of that world is drawn from the stuff you find around Limerick and Cork as a young journalist. The accents in City of Bohane are Limerick and Cork, an amalgam of those two accents, somehow.”
That delay from when Barry lived in Limerick and Cork to when he got around to writing City of Bohane was important, letting the language of the book to collect and mature. “There’s a natural lag period before your life starts showing up in your work, before events or emotions in my life have sufficiently embittered me before they have to come out. I left Cork in 2001, and started writing in 2009 – that seems to me just enough time. It’s very hard to write what happened to you last year, but think back nine, ten, eleven years it’s often just enough. It’s marinating, or composting, sitting back there and sorting itself out.”
The initial germ for Beatlebone struck Barry while he was cycling around Clew Bay; aware that one of the islands used to belong to John Lennon, the idea persisted through several different versions. “I recorded a short little radio essay about it, thinking that will take care *[of it]*. It came back and I wrote a magazine piece for people in Belfast about it. *[Then]* I put it in a story, ‘Dark Lies the Island’, I refer to John’s island in passing. I thought, ‘Surely that’s enough!’”
The pull to turn the central idea into something bigger proved too great. “I found one day I was at the desk, writing dialogue for him, and I thought, “Fuck!” I was terrified, because I knew that as a novel, it was a very scary project to undertake. There are billions of fucking people out there who have in their mind a very good idea of how they think John Lennon should sound like. You’re taking a big risk to do that.”
Writing from the point of view of a well-known singer certainly paid off, a belief seconded by country musician Steve Earle in his review for the New York Times. Earle, who would know presumably, having written in the voice of legendary singer Hank Williams for his novel I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, salutes Barry’s bold decision: “Only a literary beast, a daredevil wholly convinced he was put on this planet to write, would ever or should ever attempt to cast a person as iconic as John Lennon as a character in a tale of his own invention. Kevin Barry… is that beast.”
Reaching a point where Lennon’s voice held the right balance of nasally cadence and snarky Liverpudlian didn’t happen overnight. “A lot of it is described in the book, watching YouTube and transcribing and trying to get the intonation. It was an awful lot of dogwork, hundreds of thousands of words of drafts, most of it absolute bollocks, but just here or there you’d get a sentence that you’d maybe go, ‘Oh, that’s kind of off-the-beat, it sounds a bit skewy, that might work.’”
Establishing a clear sense of place is just as important within the writing process. Barry got to know Clew Bay very well, even tapping in to some of the area’s mystical frequencies, which helped inform the writing of Beatlebone. “I go on about this to a fault, but I always tune into particular feelings that particular places have, the energies, airs and vibrations they give out. As I cycle around Clew Bay, it’s a very beautiful place, but I’ve always had this eerie, haunted feeling off the place as well. It’s kind of a sombre valley, and I wanted to get that atmosphere into the book as well, of hauntedness in some way.”
Asked if he would identify himself as a big fan of the Beatles, especially after writing a book about one of them, Barry lets his surprising position slip. “The weird thing is I’ve never been a huge Beatles fan, [but] I love the White Album, it’s one of my favourite records.” Many of the references to Beatles songs strewn through the text come from Lennon’s lyrics on the White Album, like I’m So Tired, Yer Blues and Glass Onion. “In my own psychedelic period, in the late ’80s, early ’90s, when we’d be doing loads of acid and ecstasy in night clubs in Cork, always at about seven in the morning the house music would be taken off and someone would sneak on the Beatles. And it would always make very perfect sense.”
Barry explains that it was never his desire to present a straight account of Lennon’s quest to find his island. “I wanted to keep the actual world at a bit of a remove. So I would take facts like him owning this island and so forth *[but]* I wanted everything that occurred within the covers of the book to be so wild and out there that the reader couldn’t take them as any real representation of reality.”
These narrative wig-outs circumvented the normal rules and structures of a standard biopic. “There was a very dangerous moment two years in when I started to get a voice for him that I thought was convincing. I thought to myself ‘I could now do the standard biopic version, and there would be huge commercial for a book like that.’ But there could be nothing worse you could imagine than writing a safe novel about John Lennon. It has to be fucking wacky and wild, and fucking nuts, if it’s going to be any way true to the spirit of its subject.”
This approach would result in many of the more out-there sequences. “That was giving me sections like ‘The Rants’, where *[the characters are]* just told to sit down and tear fucking strips off each other, and it was very scary to write a section like that.” The intentional falling-away of the plot structure could be said to actually resemble a Beatles’ album. “The White Album is a record that goes out of control. It’s a glorious mess with lots of mad word play that they’re just fucking throwing out.”
Beatlebone is broken up into nine parts, nine being a number of mystic significance within the novel. Several sections display different styles, for example part four, ‘The Rants’, eschews prose completely. Presented instead as drama, the names of speakers feature beside their dialogue, and the section contains numerous stage directions. Section six is an even greater departure that leaves fiction behind altogether. It is a factual essay about the research and writing process behind Beatlebone. This points to the book as not simply an outlandish tale, but one with a strong basis in reality. The essay would make a suitable afterword, but what is striking is Barry’s decision to include it at the half-way point.
Barry explains that the intention behind the essay was to throw off any reader who may have gotten a handle on Beatlebone by that point. “Up to then I managed to get a very nice double-act with John and Cornelius. Then I thought, if I play it out, it’s just a quirky road-movie. I wanted to bring it up a level. By showing the workings of the novel really, that’s how I could lift it up a bit. What I’m presenting is a very tall tale: John Lennon bogged down in County Mayo. It was really nice to come along and qualify that. The island was there, he owned the island, he went out there twice… A lot of people don’t know about Dorinish island – they do now!”
Dipping his toe in theatre with section four of Beatlebone, Barry recognises the draw of switching mediums. “I’m increasingly writing with actors in mind, I’ve been writing radio dramas and short films, and a couple of plays *[are]* at my desk at the moment.” For a writer who takes so much care in crafting dialogue, drama seems like a natural place for Barry to go. “I noticed lately when I start to write a short story it would very quickly become an ‘I’ voice and I would take all the usual furniture of the short story out, and just be left with the voice and dialogue. It’s very evident that the work is pushing me to write with actors in mind, essentially. It’s more sociable, it gets you out of the house, which is nice, after a long prose project.”
2015 also saw Barry experiment with the role of editor. Together with wife Olivia Smith, with whom he shares co-editor billing, Barry released Winter Pages, Vol. 1 before Christmas. An annual arts anthology, it brings together fiction, poetry, interviews, and art, with a mode Barry increasingly finds himself writing in: essays. “Beatlebone really pushed me in directions like really getting interested in writing essays, and getting essays in from people that really blew me away: Claire Kilroy’s piece about new motherhood; Mark O’Connell had a great piece about a priest having doubts in west Dublin. I love the essay as a form lately, but they’re fucking harder than they look!”
Winter Pages also includes interviews with the Rubberbandits, and a discussion between Barry and Tommy Tiernan which took place at the Borris Festival of Writing. Based on their shared love of the madcap and language – curse words and otherwise – it’s not hard to see Barry and Tiernan as kindred spirits. “We’re very close in age, and geography… I was very nervous about [the discussion]. I love his stuff, I think Tommy’s brilliant. Really smart, kind of fucking tuned in to weird vibrations. He’s a serious head on him, so it was fun to do it.”
Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone is out now, published by Canongate. Winter Pages, Volume 1, edited by Kevin Barry and Olivia Smith, is also out now, published by Curlew Editions and available from winterpages.ie
Words: Eoin Tierney