Sebastian Barry: You get imprisoned in a kind of style, I could feel it leaning on me
The prize-winning author on leaving Ireland, childhood trauma and finding a new voice
"It was literally like being let out of prison," says Sebastian Barry of his new novel Days Without End, an astonishing portrait of mid-19th century America as seen through the eyes of a young Irish emigrant. After surviving famine at home and the notorious "coffin ships" to Canada, Thomas McNulty is barely 17 when he joins the US army with his boon companion John Cole, another waif wandering the vast landscape whom he meets under a hedge in Missouri. Thomas and John are just "two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world", but Barry sets down the horrors of the American Indian wars and civil war and the hardships of frontier life in a blaze of vivid observations that combine stoical matter-of-factness with new-minted wonder.
The novel follows a rich decade for the Irish writer, with two novels shortlisted for the Man Booker prize: 2005's A Long Long Way, about Irish soldiers fighting for the crown in the first world war, and 2008's The Secret Scripture, in which an old woman looks back on the rigid social mores that saw her confined to an asylum. The Secret Scripture also took the Costa book of the year, and has now been made into a film, released in the UK this month; On Canaan's Side was longlisted for the Man Booker in 2011, and The Temporary Gentleman followed in 2014.
But, Barry says, "you do get imprisoned in a kind of style, especially after 40 years. And I could feel it grievously leaning on me. You become able to do something, and that's almost verging on fatal." Days Without End, in which the beautiful fluency of Barry's prose gives way to something more impressionistic, led to "some of the high days of my life": writing it felt "as if I'd been given the numbers to a safe deposit box in a memory bank and I was taking out what was in the box or maybe even stealing it. The sheer excitement of it!"
From the very beginnings of Barry's career, in poems, short stories and plays, he was inspired by the family stories he heard as a child from his mother Joan O'Hara, one of Ireland's most popular actors. His 1995 breakthrough play, The Steward of Christendom, was a reckoning with his great-grandfather Thomas Dunne, the Catholic head of the Dublin Metropolitan police, a servant of the crown who in the wake of independence was considered a traitor to his new country. His 2002 novel Annie Dunne was named after Thomas's daughter;
A Long Long Way featured Thomas's soldier son, Willie; and On Canaan's Side followed his daughter Lily. The Secret Scripture was sparked by the revelation of a great aunt who had been put into an asylum and erased, like so many women, from family history; The Temporary Gentleman is based on the drink-soaked, destructive marriage of Barry's grandfather, who early on disowned Barry for exposing the family's dirty laundry.
What's new in Days Without End is that Barry is following the family tree back into a hazy pre-history. There was an ancestor called Thomas, but "all my grandfather ever said about him was that his great-uncle had been in the Indian wars. That's it. That was exceptionally freeing." An early version of Thomas appears in the 1992 play White Woman Street, and there's a reference in The Temporary Gentleman to "my great uncle Thomas McNulty, who was scalped by a band of Comanches in the central grasslands of Texas". So does a scalping lie in store for young Thomas? Barry considers it. "That's not true, I don't think." Though characters and details recur across his interrelated works, "it's when books contradict each other that gives me the most joy. That to me sounds more human. In later generations, everything is a story. History is surmises and good sentences."
In the clashes between Native American tribes and the Europeans trying to clear them from the land, Barry found a "rather Irish story"; like the impoverished Irish during the famine years, Native Americans were "supported by government and therefore made destitute, living in white man's rags". "What is an Irish person, except a culturally appropriated creature? Thomas has that perspective - how Cromwell tried to clear us off and create a beautiful new land minus this dreadful people called the Irish." The book also explores the "utter violence" of early Irish American history. Famine survivors "quite understandably got off the boats in north America very, very, very angry. These were people in the prime of life, essentially terrorizing the population."
When The Secret Scripture was pipped to the Man Booker prize in 2008, the chair of judges Michael Portillo described it as "another book about Ireland". Since then there's been an extraordinary renaissance in Irish literature, and Barry has found the new wave - Eimear McBride, Donal Ryan, Kevin Barry, Lisa McInerney and many more - inspirational. "I think that's partly why I was able to - in my terms - start afresh. There's a license, a freedom. Some of these writers are so good that they're actually revivifying, like an elixir."
Now after two decades living in the Wicklow mountains bringing up their three children, he and Alison have moved temporarily to Harlesden, north London. The children have left home, and this is an opportunity for Alison to be closer to the film world after the screenplay she wrote 19 years ago "in her bed of pregnancy", and convinced Alan Rickman to star in and direct, became 2014's A Little Chaos. The screen version of The Secret Scripture, described in a Guardian review as "sorely lacking in subtlety", has been a less happy experience.
The film makes major changes to plot and setting, and Barry felt "sad, and to be honest disappointed", to discover that "there aren't three words from the book in the film. I'm not seeing anything that I wrote." As a theatre person, he explains, "my fealty is to actors. I think Vanessa Redgrave is really wonderful in it. All the actors, they're really fine. But I'm sort of innocent of it, because I don't know what it is."
And after their six months in Harlesden, "who knows?" The "days without end" for which Barry names the new book are "the days of our lives when we have our kids and you're not thinking about being old or young, you're just in the maelstrom of life. An incredibly privileged time. You may be miserable and making a terrible mess of it, but nevertheless that was your gift of days." Now, "suddenly I'm 61. Because after your days without end, when they do actually end, you're like Rip Van Winkle waking up in the Hollow."
Perhaps this is why the new novel conjures the eternal present of a far-off place and time that is "so remote from the singular mess of my own childhood". "The important thing for me about Thomas and John Cole is that" - he whispers - "they're still alive with Winona. They've created a family, which is the only proper outcome for the world. I can feel them there." (excerpt)
The writer is the Guardian's deputy literary editor. The write-up has also appeared on www.theguardian.com