An hour with Sebastian Barry

This afternoon’s foray to the ASB theatre to see prize-winning novelist Sebastian Barry gave me another chance to marvel anew at the challenging stage adornments.  A metalled and mottled green geometric sculpture, staunch silver gnomes and sinisterly backlit potted palms. All strangely redolent of a 1970s Doctor Who set and leaving me waiting for Tom Baker to stroll in with studied nonchalance and offer us all a jelly baby. Sadly no Tom but instead the rather wonderful Sebastion Barry.

Barry is known both for his lyrical prose and his focus on the marginalised people of Ireland’s past, particularly his own imagined ancestors. On Canaan’s Side is Barry’s fifth novel and folows the story of Lilly Bere, a member of the Dunne family previously met in his novels  Annie Dunne and A Long, Long Way. We were treated to a spirited reading from his novel and the unexpected bonus of some accomplished singing too.

His “real” family Barry characterised as dour, and his sister and himself as veterans or survivors of their family life.  As a mechanism to learn how to live and more importantly to learn how to parent his own children Barry turned to the ‘ancestors sheltering in his DNA’ and gave creative life to his forebears, writing himself a non-toxic family.

The creative process itself Barry finds mysterious. He tries to keep a “weather-eye” on the plot and hopes his maps are up-to-date and that he won’t get snarled up on the rocks. The “tangled wool basket” of his novels, plays and poetry often surprises him but loves that readers take the time to untangle the threads of the inter-woven tapestries of his work and elevate these fictional characters to an almost life.

Asked about the impact of reviews and critiques of his work, Barry compared the book world to a circus where the bearded lady once so popular is now out of fashion and the tigers once revered are now thought to look mangy and under-fed. Barry avoids reviews of his most recent work for several months, they interfere with his digestion, and then if the reviews aren’t too harsh congratulates himself on “getting away with it” like an outlaw from the wild-west having avoided the Sheriff’s bullets and the hangman’s noose.

After a slow start, Sebastian Barry delivered a witty, charming and personable performance and by gads he looked the part of playwright/novelist: unruly hair, beetled brow and tweedy slept-in suit.  Delighfully easy to imagine him striding across a tempestuous moor declaiming poetry in the company of his ghostly kin-folk.

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