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Books

Why Irish author Kevin Barry gave John Lennon 'primal scream therapy'

Kevin Barry has been described as a steampunk writer. The author who created the dystopian "City of Bohane" and brings John Lennon back to an Irish island in "Beatlebone" tells DW why he agrees with the label.

Kevin Barry's latest book, "Beatlebone," tells the fictional story of ex-Beatle John Lennon after he escapes from New York in 1978. Barry told DW's Sabine Peschel what made the book so difficult to write - and why he had no choice but to become an author.

DW: Kevin Barry, Ireland is not a very large country, but its contribution to world literature is immense. There are more Irish authors than one could name in an afternoon. What made you decide you wanted to be one of them?

Kevin Barry: I think that Irish people love the sound of their own voices. We love to tell stories. And it's not unconnected with our weather, where it rains almost 300 days of the year and we're trapped indoors and have nothing to do except to make up really crazy stories and to try and entertain ourselves. I think this honestly explains part of the great tradition of Irish literature. I almost fell naturally into a storytelling mode, I guess.

So it's kind of unavoidable, being born in Limerick?

I think it is! When I go back and visit Limerick now - I live now in the Northwest of Ireland, in County Sligo - and visit the family and old friends, we tell each other the same stories again and again and the details of the stories aren't important, it's the way we tell them and how much fun you can get out of the rendition of the story. It's almost like singing.

In 2011, you received the International Dublin Literary Award that was endowed with 100,000 euros. You once said in an interview: "I'll only be content when I receive the Literature Nobel Prize." How far along are you in reaching this goal?

This comment I made has ended up on my Wikipedia page and I was kind of being mischievous. I think they will never give me the Nobel Prize now. I've been too presumptuous, so I haven't got a hope. But I have been lucky to win some prizes and it's always nice to get literary awards, especially when they've got large sums of money attached to them.

Let's talk about your book "City of Bohane." The name sounds so Irish. How did you find that name?

It was very difficult to begin the novel, because I knew that I wanted to build a little city of my own. But I didn't know what it was called. I was searching for months subconsciously for a name. I kind of had a vision; it was sent to me one night. I sat suddenly awake in bed and I said out loud the single word: "Bohane." And it sounded just right and it felt right for the city. It's actually a very old Irish surname, not very common. It felt right for the imaginary city somewhere out on the West Coast of Ireland.

Why is your novel set in 2053, almost 40 years in the future?

This was an amazement to me. I had no idea that the novel was set in the future. But I was about halfway through writing the first chapter of the book and I found myself typing the sentence: "Long gone in Bohane the days of the discos." And I remember saying: "Wow! This is actually set in the future!" And this was a wonderful discovery, because it meant I could invent and let my imagination have free reign and go wild on the page. I didn't need to stick too close to the actual and I could just let imagination take over.

There are no mobile phones, no computers. Why is your future so "retro"?

I guess it struck me actually as I was proceeding with the book and writing the first chapters, that it was kind of a Western. Essentially all of the archetypes of the characters were classic Western archetypes. I enjoyed the fact that no technology was appearing. There weren't even motorcars, there were some old trams. So clearly there had been some sort of catastrophe. We don't know what it was or what occurred. But I started to have great fun with this kind of retro city. And it's set in the 50s, but it could be the 2050s, it could be the 1950s, it could almost be the 1850s. In some ways, it's kind of a Victorian future. Some critics used the term "steampunk," as you would have in graphic novels, and that's quite close, I think, to the kind of approach I'm using.

Is this a reaction to the fast changes in Ireland? You mention time a lot in your book.

I think whenever a writer sits down and writes a story that's set in the future, in lots of ways really they're just projecting on and describing the present moment in an exaggerated kind of way. Between the late 1990s and around 2009-2010, Ireland went through vast changes. Very quickly the whole fabric of the country changed. There was a huge economic boom, a huge economic collapse, and for the first time massive immigration into the country. The energies of the cities changed in wonderful ways and in some negative ways and there were new tensions.

In some ways, "City of Bohane" is my Celtic tiger novel and it's kind of describing the changes in the cities at this time in a very kind of abstracted way. I wasn't even aware of this when writing it. Writers are very often the last people to find out what their books are about.

You said you were writing an epilogue, an anti-realistic novel. On the other hand, you are open about many of your sources of inspiration, naming authors like Anthony Burgess, Cormac McCarthy and James Joyce throughout your work. Their work was fictional of course, but based on social circumstances of their time. What historical or social circumstances are in the background of "City of Bohane" - or are there any?

No, I think that there are. I think a lot of the experience of the novel as it's presented comes from my own experience of growing up in cities like Limerick and Cork, which could from time to time be very troublesome cities with lots of gang fights and lots of criminal strife between different sectors of the cities and very influential in that way. It's true that there are whole myriads of influences on the novel drawn from popular culture. Certainly film, television and graphic novels are very important to me in terms of influence, as is music. Mentioning Anthony Burgess, "A Clockwork Orange" was a very important book for me.

Also I think when I was writing the novel, around 2009 or so, my big kick at the time was probably the box sets of American TV shows like "The Wire" and "The Sopranos" that I was watching. I found those shows had stolen an awful lot of narrative technique from the novel, so I was thinking that there were ways of stealing some of that back and using those shows as influences in terms of the way they used montage and very quick cuts between scenes and so forth.

The book was also influenced by the fact that I've been writing a lot of scripts myself. It very much moves scene to scene. Somebody pointed out to me that many pages in the book read like a graphic novel. There are so many influences going on, you can only hope you really make something original from all of them.

Your book is written in Limerick and Cork accents. How did you find the basic tone of your book?

In lots of ways I'm less of a writer and more of a frustrated actor. I perform the work aloud as I'm writing it. I do all the lines, the dialogue and the descriptions out loud. I think my ultimate project is to mess with the fundamental English sentence and to try and pack as much vitality into it as possible. I don't write in an acquired and restrained way.

Perhaps the most modern trend in writing is to cut back and to strip down and I go in the other direction. It's become more "baroque" and more elaborate with every passing day the more I write. I think your literary style, your prose style is very simply a direct projection of your personality on the page. And my personality is neurotic energy. So I can't help myself and this is what comes out as I write. I mean, I'm interested in plot and character, but more than anything I'm interested in the sentences and getting as much vitality and fun onto the page as possible.

You wrote a new book. What is it about?

My new novel will came out on November 17. It's very different in many ways. It's about John Lennon, of the Beatles of course, who owned a tiny Island off the West Coast of Ireland that he bought in the 1960s. He only visited it twice ever, for an hour each time. He had plans to build a house, then he forgot about the island and he gave it to a commune for a while, some hippies. Towards the end of his life he talked about the island again and about maybe going back and building a house.

So I imagined him in 1978, making a final visit to his island. And he wants to do some primal scream therapy, to break out of the creative crisis that he's in. I just sent him traveling on this mysterious mission around the West of Ireland. I tried to get a voice that would convince for John Lennon. It was a very difficult book, it took almost four years. It took a long time before I was happy with the language of it.

Similarly to "City of Bohane" it's a big language performance. John was very obsessed with writers like Dylan Thomas and James Joyce, so I kind of imagined a voice for him that's using influences like that. It's a very weird and strange book but I think it's a very funny one as well, but also sad. It's called "Beatlebone" - and I have no idea how they are going to translate it either.

And then there will be a sequel to "City of Bohane"? Will we meet the same characters? And when will it be published?

I always set these kinds of ritual dates for my projects. On the shortest day of the year, my plan is to begin the second "Bohane" novel. It will be five or six years later in the story. And I know for sure that two of the characters from the first book will come back. The two women, actually - Jenni Chang and the old lady, Girlie -, are still going strong. I recorded the audio book myself for "City of Bohane" and as I read the book from start to finish, I had most fun whenever Jenni or Girlie appeared. So those are the two characters we're going back to and I'm sure things will go quite badly wrong. I hope to write it quite quickly and to publish it in 2017.

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