I am in Brooks Hotel in Dublin eating pastries and drinking coffee with Colin Barrett, author of the acclaimed story collections Young Skins (2013) and Homesickness (2022). He’s meeting me during what is normally his writing time, the hours between the morning and afternoon school runs, to talk about his excellent first novel, Wild Houses, which is published this month.

Almost everything Barrett writes takes place in Mayo where he grew up, even though he and his young family have just returned to Ireland after six years living in Toronto (his wife was working there as a doctor). “I was just creatively and emotionally still, I guess, certainly as far as writing was concerned,” he says. “I actually felt myself becoming disconnected. It wasn’t harder to write about because I was deep in the drafts of Wild Houses… but I just hadn’t been to these places in a while. I need regular infusions of Irishness.”

Barrett’s family all had artistic inclinations when he was growing up in the village of Knockmore. His mother, who worked in a bank, painted, while his father, an electrician, played music. “I was a quiet enough kid,” he says. “I went from playing with my toys making up stories to drawing comic books… I always enjoyed putting together little narrative. [Writing] was very important to me. I feel like my authentic self when I do it but the practicalities of it, I guess, were beyond me… I was abstractly aware you could be a ‘writer’ but it seemed a remote aspiration. How do you do this? You probably have to go to New York or London.”

He studied English in UCD and he wrote, largely for himself. What was his early work like? “It was very derivative of what I was reading,” he says. “I was doing pastiches of writers I liked. I was very impressed by the people [who] a guy in his early 20s would be impressed by – Thomas Pynchon or David Foster Wallace – these things were blowing my mind. I kind of worked my way back towards Irish writers. I had some sort of innate aversion. I was afraid I’d be inhibited by reading Irish writing, or [that] if I found someone doing something I could potentially do and doing it better than I was able to, it would immediately render me redundant.”

Discovering Irish literary journals like The Stinging Fly and the Dublin Review in the UCD library was a major road to Damascus moment for him, the moment he realised that writing wasn’t just “something dead people did… They happened to be publishing mainly Irish writers, contemporary writers, so I discovered Kevin Barry and stuff like that.”

He talks specifically about the impact of Barry’s debut story collection There are Little Kingdoms. “Here was someone writing about a world I knew but doing it with a kind of playfulness and a surreally inflected quality. It wasn’t solemn, and I could detect the influences of it that weren’t necessarily Irish, the brashness of American fiction.”

After his degree he worked at a call centre while writing in his spare time. “You have to have the same scripted four-minute conversation with people every day, so the full breadth of human experience isn’t as available to you as you might think.” He laughs. “But it was only in those years living and working that I grew up a little bit and was able to get a better sense of myself, and it was there that I very firmly came to believe I wanted to write.”

He applied for and was accepted into the creative writing masters in UCD. It was there he began finishing his stories, and had a few accepted by The Stinging Fly. “Declan [Meade, Stinging Fly editor] invited me to come read at the launch, and I got to meet other people who were in and around my cohort who were writing… It should be obvious that whenever there’s a good literary moment somewhere, there’s an organic literary scene with people like Declan giving a forum to people.”

It was only after meeting UK and US writers that he realised how rare this sense of community was. “[For them] it was a completely abstract experience where they wrote a book, sent it to an agent, got to an editor, and it’s come out and now they’re going to do a reading and they hadn’t done it before. I’d done readings three or four times at Stinging Fly launches or at the Irish Writers Centre.”

How does having a community help? “I think it inoculates you against being too discouraged,” he says. “It’s tough to write on your own indefinitely. For me, it started out very much as a solitary thing and it was a kind of reprieve from the world. I guess I’m a pretty introverted person. Like most people who write, I love getting away from things and building a life on the page and sinking into an inner world, but you can’t do that forever. So it’s good to be able to come out to meet other people with the same sensibility.”

In good times, people leave. And in bad times, people leave. There’s a kind of melancholy emptiness to small towns that [people] are just infused by without even being aware of it

How did he find his literary voice? “Writing about Mayo, about the fictional town of Glenbeigh [where his first stories are set], that was the key to turning into a better writer, a real writer,” he says. “The stuff I started writing just felt firmer footed, more anchored and more concrete. It’s the most obvious thing in the world, but if you write towards your own experiences, it goes through the magic mirror of fiction, and it gets turned into something else…. I didn’t worry too much about how accurately I was capturing Mayo. I wasn’t too worried if I was being derivative. My biggest fear was who’s going to want to read these stories about lads in chip shops in small towns.” He laughs. “But once I found it, it opened the seam inside of me as a writer. It all came pouring out. It felt real and substantial… I found a current; I found something I could pull out of me.”

Barrett’s first sharply observed, visceral collection Young Skins was published in 2013. It made an impression. A novella from that collection, Calm with Horses, was adapted into the Nick Rowland directed film of the same name. Four of his subsequent stories were published in The New Yorker, the high-water mark for both literary success and editorial perfection (“In one story I described someone as ‘Bambi on ice’ and got a phone call from the fact checker. ‘Just so you know Bambi never skated on ice [in the film]. This phrase is incorrect.’”). Many critics read Young Skins as a portrait of a lost, post-crash generation. Was he conscious of this as he was writing? “Not really but… I was writing Young Skins when I was either on the dole or living off an arts grant and working part-time.”

And small town Ireland always feels marginal, he adds. “In good times, people leave. And in bad times, people leave. There’s a kind of melancholy emptiness to small towns that [people] are just infused by without even being aware of it. There’s always this absence. There are all these ghosts… ‘Where’s such and such?’ ‘Oh, she’s gone to Australia now.’”

A recurring thread in his work is the tension between those who leave and those who stay. “There’s a psychic difference,” he says. “I had a friend who went to live in Galway for a year or two in college and he was like ‘No I couldn’t handle it. I’ll go back to Mayo,’ and I was like ‘It’s only Galway man.’” He laughs. “I didn’t find Mayo, or my small town, oppressive or stifling, but I just had that urge to get to go to a big city… If I wasn’t a writer, I don’t know if I would have really turned back [towards Mayo] in my 20s and paid as much attention to it.”

There was a bit of a gap between Young Skins in 2013 and his next publication, Homesickness, in 2022, with a shorter gap between that and the new novel Wild Houses. “I started not too long after I finished Young Skins,” he says. “It was just a very laborious, slow process where I went down a lot of blind alleys and chopped and changed… If I got stuck on the novel, I’d go and write a short story. But that’s how I’ve always worked. Even with Young Skins I’d have two or three stories on the go when I was writing them. Then I’d stick with one and come back to them.”

Wild Houses, a moving, funny, tense novel, is told partly from the perspective of Nicky, a capable, responsible young woman whose more feckless boyfriend Doll is kidnapped by the thuggish Ferdia brothers, and partly from the perspective of Dev, a vulnerable shut-in in whose house Doll is imprisoned. “It’s an extension of what I’ve always written about, which is just community bonds. That’s really heightened in small towns, but it’s everywhere. You can’t really get away from people. And you shouldn’t. Dev is someone who has amputated himself from the rest of the world.”

I suggest that being forced to participate in a kidnapping is possibly the best thing that’s happened to Dev, socially speaking. Barrett laughs and agrees. “It’s this really terrible and serious thing on one level, but I had a hunch if I could get inside Dev’s mind and get inside the relationships they would be a lot greyer and more blurred and more rich… I just wanted to show Dev’s logic all the time, even when he’s being morally weak and he’s letting things happen and he’s refusing to intercede and he’s just hoping it all goes away.”

There’s a real sense of the crime being a bit tragicomically casual. “I wanted to write these scenes where they are just doing a lot of sitting around and they’re giving him a beer and they’re letting them watch movies and they’re like, ‘Come on, it’s not that serious.’”

They have, I note, a “dodgy box” with loads of pirated movies on it. He laughs. “A very authentic detail from my years of house sharing.”

The novel, like his other work, also has a strange mythic quality. That’s a bit of a small-town phenomenon, he says. “People tell stories about themselves and they end up being burnished into myths almost. I’ve friends who would talk about what happened in school, notorious incidences from 20 years ago and they just tell them again and again. They really have taken on a mythological largeness. I feel like the Ferdias, for instance, these two small-time guys, they’re hard men but they would be eaten up in a bigger pond. So they’re quite happy in their little pond and they expand into it [and] they like that everyone talks about them. They’re like local celebrities in a sense.”

Every town, says Barrett, has these characters. “They love being the character. They embrace it… [In the novel] you’ve lots of characters talking about each other… It’s very true to the dynamics of small towns. People loom large in your life. When these bonds are there, you can’t get away from them.”

Before he started down this particular literary path was he aware of how much of the local idiom he had in his head? “[The characters] do approximate the particular rhythms of the northwest Mayo accent, but I didn’t overly worry about that. Dialogue has to be its own thing… It’s credible because it’s internally consistent not because it’s exactly how people in Mayo talk. Undoubtedly, it’s not a million miles from it but again, I didn’t worry too much… People from Mayo tend not to be too wordy. Some of my characters are very wordy. But that’s okay. They’ve let me away with it.”

What do Mayo people make of his output? He laughs. “They’re very literary people in Mayo. It’s only been positive. Maybe someone will show up to the Ballina Arts Centre to boo me, but most people aren’t bothering to tell you if they think the book is shite.”

I feel very insubstantial if I’m not writing. I feel semi-transparent or something

Is he ever tempted to move things to a different locale? “It’s still such a mysterious and fertile place for me to write about… During the pandemic, I didn’t go to Mayo for three years. I’ve been able to go back two or three times since I got back in July so I’m being really infused with Mayo particles and I’m feeling it again and I’m hoping that will have a vivifying effect on my writing. It’s just a stand-in for the world. I mean, we’ve talked about it earlier; you can have a small-scale story, where the stakes are small, but the characters can end up feeling mythologically large. I’ve never been to Tokyo, so I have to write as if what I know is the world.”

I tell him a story I heard about The Irish Times journalist and Mayo-lover John Healy who, when writing about China in the 1960s, observed its beauty and noted that it was “like Mayo”.

He laughs. “I was in Beijing, and I met a lovely Chinese writer who said, ‘I know guys like these’.”

Fiction, he says, can give people “the texture of lived reality. You can read Jane Austen or Henry James or Dostoevsky or Chekhov and… you go ‘I know that person’ or ‘I am that person.’… You read a novel from 200 years ago and you’re reading about some f**king eejit doing the exact same thing you would have done in that situation and it’s very moving.”

What does he get from writing personally? “It definitely makes me feel more grounded in myself,” he says. “I feel very insubstantial if I’m not writing. I feel semi-transparent or something. And obviously lots of people get by without writing. They have very rich and happy lives. It’s different now that I’ve got a bit older and more secure in myself… But it helps me feel more connected to myself and the rest of the world.”

He thinks this has something to do with memory. “The characters are always this amalgam of glancing impressions you have from when you’re a kid, people you saw out of the corner of your eye or were kind of half paying attention to. It’s this amalgam of past experiences, and you get to just strain it through fiction, and sort of distil it down. I think I would forget and lose contact with things if I wasn’t writing about them. I think if I wasn’t writing I wouldn’t go back and excavate those things and therefore I would be less here or something.” He laughs. “I need to go there to be here.”

Wild Houses by Colin Barrett is published on January 25th by Jonathan Cape



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