Homesickness short story collection features Colin Barrett’s odd ear for dialogue and the Irish vernacular
Although Canada has ended Colin Barrett’s life so far – he returned to his hometown of Toronto five years ago when his wife, a doctor, took a job at Sick Kids Hospital (the one of their two children was born in Canada) – it is the place where he spent his thirty years, County Mayo in the west of Ireland, which provided the source of his fiction. Barrett’s first collection of short stories, Young Skins (2015), won a series of coveted awards, establishing him as an outstanding young writer in a country that has never lacked literary talent. The eight sparkling, sparsely plotted tales of his last, Homesickness (McClelland & Stewart), easily cement this early hype. Like their predecessors, they highlight their author’s humor and strange ear for dialogue and the Irish vernacular. Barrett also has a novel coming out next year.
Your characters are all very different but tend to lack, for lack of a better term, self-awareness.
I like to write about people who are not very interior. They don’t come from a place where you are encouraged to talk a lot about your inner life. Which doesn’t mean you don’t have it, it just means that maybe the language, certainly the opportunity to express it, isn’t always there. I like to write about my characters. I don’t need to be in their shoes at first. … The physical world, the people interacting and talking to each other, the social formations are, I think, just as indicative of a character as anything he might think inside.
Clark Blaise called the short story an expansionist form, in that it’s the most expansive statement you can make about an incident, while a novel gets miniaturized, because it’s the shortest thing you can say about a much bigger incident. Does it resonate?
Short stories allow for some intensity. You’re trying to distill or focus a character, because you can’t tell the whole life, but you can reveal their essence, take them through an incident or two. There is a kind of magnification that occurs. What’s really exciting to me about stories is the idea that I have a character and I have a premise and I don’t know how it’s all going to play out, but I hope if I sticks pretty close to the material, I’ll find something worthwhile. It never bothered me to write, rewrite and edit. I don’t mind working slowly and I don’t mind going through a section until it’s correct. I work in a very incremental way – I can see the rest of the story buried in there somewhere in nascent form. You just have to take it out.
Short stories still struggle to gain respect in Canada, despite the fact that our greatest writer, Alice Munro, writes them almost exclusively. Is it different in Ireland?
Short story is a form that all of Ireland’s greatest writers have written, so it tends to be respected. This is obviously not a business proposition. It doesn’t move units as easily, and readers sometimes don’t find them as immersive as a novel. My first publishers were The Stinging Fly Press, and they also run a literary magazine which is huge if you’re a budding writer. It’s a place where you want to be published. It was my biggest dream when I was 20. I was lucky that when I wanted to write, there was a magazine and a community in Ireland that I could write to. I fell in love with the shape. I think if I was trying to send stories to the US or UK it would have seemed a bit impossible.
Which writer first made you see the possibilities of form?
Kevin Barry. I found his first book, There are small kingdoms, in my college library and his stories just blew my mind. He was writing about contemporary small town Ireland in a way I hadn’t come across in my restless readings of Irish literature – guys driving cars around town and fighting and all that – and he did with language experience; the stories seemed really alive. He got me thinking okay, maybe you box do this.
You said you also read different authors now. Would you like to mention any?
John McGahern. I re-read properly five or six years ago and realized, yeah, I can see what everyone is talking about here. In different phases of your life, you are going to be attracted to a certain type of writing, and it is completely normal for this to change and evolve. That’s what happened while I was writing Homesickness. I also read a lot of Alice Munro.
Critics have insisted on anointing you the literary representative of your patch of Ireland. Is it flattering? Pressurize?
I’ll accept any flattery, don’t worry. There are a lot of very talented writers in Ireland. It’s been a very dynamic scene – a lot before me obviously – but when I’ve been through over the last 10-12 years there have been so many great writers and so many theories as to why…
… do you have a – a theory?
The most common was the financial crash of 2008 which totaled job prospects for many young Irish people, so many of them sat down and wrote books. I think many would have anyway. There are some big names in Mayo right now. I am going to visit a village and the elders there have read everything. They want to have really sophisticated conversations about writing. That’s wonderful.
The only story set in Toronto in Homesickness doesn’t feel like a “Toronto” story, partly because the main character is Irish, but also because it’s set during the pandemic, so its world feels small, airtight. And the rhythms of the Irish language are so intrinsic to your work that it’s hard to imagine yourself writing in the North American vernacular. Do you think your stories will migrate here, like you did, or does the remoteness of Ireland bring you some clarity?
If a story comes to mind that takes place here that I think there’s something to do, I’d pursue it, but I don’t think I’m going to write from the perspective of a native Torontonian or anything. The rhythms of how people speak and how they think and grammar sink into your bones in those early years. I like to write as I write about the people I write about and the vernacular. It’s generative, it’s exciting. Writing is often slow, difficult and painful, but when you can catch those beats and know you have something in there…it’s a very intuitive process. The pandemic has allowed me to write about Toronto as a sort of dark, spectral place. The characters rush from empty house to empty house. Kevin Barry has a theory that an experiment takes about 11 years to go through and creatively metabolize before you can start writing about it. It’s a very specific number, I don’t know where he got it. I’ve been in Toronto for five years and still feel like I’m new to the city, so that would be very premature, presumptuous of me.
You did this mentorship with Colm Toibin as part of the mentor-and-protégé initiative sponsored by Rolex. How was it?
Colm is a wonderful person. He’s a great writer, obviously, but he was so open and approachable, accessible. We weren’t in the same country for the most part, but Rolex allowed us to meet regularly. I was working on my novel and these stories at the time, and he was talking very openly and honestly about his own work and the pains of writing, the pains of composing, and I was listening.
Tell me about that novel you wrote.
It’s set in the west of Ireland – it’s a kidnapping, that’s all I’ll say – and it’s been long, slow and arduous. I’m not looking for pity, that’s how it is. I figured out how to write decent stories, but there was no guarantee that I could write a novel. So I wrote and rewrote it and learned as I went. Talking to Colin was very enlightening. Not that he had a magic key he could give me: he was just talking about his own work and the books he had struggled with in the past. It was hard and slow. And I would write badly. I write badly almost all the time. I write slowly almost all the time and throw things away all the time. It’s no different, but I keep going because I know that in the end I’ll get there.
This interview has been edited and condensed
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