The Right Kind of Damage: An Interview with Colin Barrett
March 3, 2015 | by Jonathan Lee
There’s a moment in “Car-Crash While Hitchhiking,” a story by Denis Johnson that first appeared in The Paris Review, in 1989, when a woman learns of the death of her husband and unleashes a terrible scream. The narrator, instead of expressing the expected sympathy, leans out of the page a little to offer this unnerving confession: “It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.”
Reading Young Skins, Colin Barrett’s debut story collection, can leave one with a similar sense of disturbed gratitude. The stories blend moments of horror with moments of hilarity, shocks of joy with shocks of despair, and no matter how grim a given scene by Barrett can get, it’s a thrill to be alive to hear him. In a restroom, under a naked bulb, we find “a lidless shitter operated by a fitfully responsive flush handle.” In a field, “crushed cans of Strongbow and Dutch Gold and Karpackie are buried in the mud like ancient artefacts.” A “big brown daddy-long-legs pedals airily in the sink basin,” its movements ”describing a flustered circle,” and a character named Bat cannot enjoy his dinner because a clan of kids is “eyeing the bulky hydraulics of his jaw.”
The vitality of Barrett’s prose—the special intensity of attention he’s able to draw from details of small-town life—has already helped win him the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Guardian First Book Award, and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. To mark the U.S. release of Young Skins this month, I talked with him about his allergy to “lethally competent writing,” the details of character and language upon which he builds a story, and how a work of fiction—like the community it describes—can develop “its shibboleths, its customs and codes, its own way of talking to itself.”
Were your earliest efforts as a writer very different to the stories collected in Young Skins?
I wrote and drew lots of gory comic books as a young kid and as a teen. Then I discovered and wrote lots of poetry around college age. Awful, sub-Ashbery, sub-Muldoon, sub-Eliot stuff, but at least it was writing. Then I attempted a few novels—multinarrator, genre-splicing Pynchonian or Foster Wallace sprawlers, usually set in alternate futures, though I never got more than a couple dozen pages in. I only started really writing stories at twenty-five. The early stuff was all, obviously, awful—but awful in a vital way. The wonderful thing about being completely inexperienced is the impregnable purity of your ignorance. You are utterly insensible to any conception of your own crippling and patent limitations, and so you try anything and everything.
There’s a line of Dermot Healy’s that came to mind when I was reading your work—“It’s in a neighbor’s house fiction begins.” When did you realize that focusing on a close-knit community was going to be liberating?
The first story I wrote that was published was set in Glanbeigh, or an inchoate version of it. It was called “Let’s Go Kill Ourselves” and was about a college student who returns to his west of Ireland hometown for the Christmas holidays. He encounters an old friend that still hangs around the town, has a couple of symbolically larded flashbacks about the time he and his teen cohorts abused a dog, and at the end of the story it dawns on the narrator, as dawn it was always going to, that this place, his town, means nothing to him anymore.
The problem with the story—and it’s a problem most “aspiring” or “apprentice” work, though I dislike those terms, suffers from—was that I was refusing to commit to the subject matter, the town. I was disguising that refusal as a posture of poised disenchantment, as knowingness, in the narrator. It was a decent piece of callow work, and it is always hard to disentangle oneself from the modest vanity of technical accomplishment: the story had few very bad lines, and a few good ones, but there were no real dramatic stakes. I was writing against and around the town but not actually writing about the town. I kept the locale—and, by extension, the community—at a distance, a barely glimpsed site of ambivalent energies. I, and the narrator, had both already made our minds up about the community. That sort of imposed thematic certitude kills a narrative. All the conflicts played out therein were specious. You know you’re in trouble when you have to have a character indulge in gratuitous animal cruelty for a cheap dramatic jolt.
When do you think you began to approach the material differently—to write from the inside?
The next stories I wrote were “The Moon” and “The Clancy Kid” [both of which appear in Young Skins]. They commenced, as it were, already inside the threshold of themselves. The movement of the stories was not from outside, or toward, or away from the town—it started and ended inside, and there was no extenuating out. The paradoxical thing? By penning myself inside the limits of this made-up town, I found what felt like a bottomless intimacy, which begat an intensity and copiousness of language, which energized each story.
Of course, you still need to control things—the materials, the register. But in the stories in Young Skins, by writing directly and relentlessly about this town and the members of its community, I found stakes.
You’ve said before that your stories “stay alive by resisting, right up until they are done.”
I just can’t write to a plan. I can’t plot out in advance. Sometimes, in some unasked for spurt of mentation, the whole arc of a story will come to me—I’ll see the beginning, have a pretty good idea of the middle, and see the end, too. But these stories always die on the way to the page.
Of course you need a frame, a perimeter of some kind, in which to work. But mine is not strictly plot, or even character. The town was that frame in Young Skins, though really it’s always the language, finding that register with just enough ductility and snap in it to suit your purpose—the catch being you often don’t know what the purpose is until you find the register … If you get the language, the story follows, and in Young Skins the language flowed out of the concept of the town, somehow. What’s a vernacular, a dialect? It is language, weathered and textured and defined by time and geography, the same way a wind-eroded mountainside or a listing, flaking fence post is. I follow the language back to the mouth out of which it is being spoken.
I mean that as much as I’ve just espoused the generative power and dexterousness of a vernacular language, it also contains in-built limits, is finite. You need that. An elementally simple thing it can sometimes take a long time to figure out about fiction—in terms of language, character, plot, everything—is that it requires making choices. Each choice simultaneously accesses new possibilities, but closes others off. Before I found the voices and stories in Young Skins, I wanted to write uninhibitedly, about everything. It’s a fine impulse, but to write something, you have to suspend the ambition to write everything.
What kind of moment of language or character do you find yourself searching for when you start a new story? What most frequently gives you a way in?
Starting a story I try to be as unambitious as possible. I look for one tiny detail and expand upon it. Just describing the way a character drinks a drink or sits into the driver’s seat of a car does so much work for you. Actors talk about how much of acting is gestural, about bearing and comportment. A bad actor can’t sit into a chair in a credible way. Same with characters—they can say and do and think crazy things. But you have to be able to put them down into a chair in a credible way. Start there and work out.
Do you then try and follow the logic of the moment you visualize—he’s sitting in a chair doing x or y, so maybe next he’ll do z—or is it more a case of discovering a logic in the sentence, its rhythm?
Gordon Lish talks about “consecution,” about pulling the language and subject matter out of the previous sentence. Each sentence, even down to its syllabic and acoustical shape, embryonically contains the next. I don’t do it at that microscopic level, but I like to work incrementally with plot, extruding what is, I believe, incipient. Just accruing one small detail after another. The big stuff takes care of itself. What seems like audacious structural or narratorial swerves often aren’t, at the time of construction—they’re just the next step you need to take.
Take me through a specific story, like “Stand Your Skin.”
“Stand Your Skin” is a good example. It’s what I used to think of as a going-around-doing-nothing story. It’s a character piece focusing on the protagonist, Bat, detailing a routine few days in his existence. The defining event in his life—the random kicking he was on the end of in a chipper after a night out—happened years before, and the guy who assaulted him is long gone. It’s a fairly low-key story, in terms of events. Bat works in a petrol station, lives with his ma, is somewhat of a social recluse, goes to a birthday party in a pub, has a mild panic attack, and goes home. That’s it on the event level of the story. But technically, and structurally—and this is only apparent in retrospect, so I can’t consciously take credit for it—there’s a lot going on. There’s three perspective switches in the story, including one right at the end, a story within a story in the form of a direct monologue. There’s a recalled dream sequence, and an entire patterned sequence of imagery relating to confinement running through the text like vertebra.
Even the insects are trapped in that story.
Yeah, and in the opening scene Bat squeezes into a public restroom the size of a telephone box. His boss makes him tie up his long hair. There are park benches bolted into the concrete in the station forecourt, and each night Bat goes trough the black square of his bedroom window to drink on the roof. Even his motorcycle helmet is a tight fit. You don’t put any of this stuff in consciously, but it’s there. Trying to consciously write from themes—or anything else—usually goes badly for me.
What do you want in your sentences, and what do you look to strike out as you revise?
What I look for in sentences is a gnarl, a knuckliness. It’s textural, like a striae or a burr, some embedded trace within the sentence where the register changes or shifts. It’s hard to explain, of course, because it sounds like damage of a kind, but it has to be the right kind of damage, and it may be visual or mental as much as it is aural. Sound in prose is important, but it is not everything. I like a sentence that does exactly what it needs to, just not in the way one would have thought it needed to do it. I like a sentence that booby traps its cadence if required. I like sentences that go on, and ones that end before you think.
This leads me to the inevitable question of influences …
Just sticking to short stories, there’s Denis Johnson, obviously but undeniably. Those Jesus’ Son stories read, initially, as if they are incredibly loose and dazed, moving with this kind of shambolic serendipity. And again, there is this unabashed, fissile pushing together of contending registers and moods, a mixture of conventionally graceful sentences and deliberately ugly ones. There are masterful exercises in mood, and in actuality, technically full or rigor and control, but they have the associative fluidity of dreams. Later I found something similar in the work of the likes of Joy Williams, whose commitment to the inimitability of each sentence is at times staggering.
Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner and Barry Hannah taught me about vernacular and place, how one feeds insatiably into the other, and about achieving the special intensity unique to the short story. I’ll stop there, but I could go on.
There’s a sort of maximalism at work in your writing, I think. Your sentences are often big, loud, risky. Do you define yourself in opposition to the current trend in contemporary fiction—if “trend” is the right word—toward a more minimalistic approach?
I was crazy for maximalistically inclined writing for a long time, in my formative period. I read a bit wider these days. I like plenty of writing that might be termed “stripped” or “bare,” as long as there is a purpose and ingenuity to it. What I don’t like is the doubly patronizing and puritanical association of “stripped bare” or “minimalist” writing with “reality,” whatever the fuck “reality” is. Minimalism, or whatever you want to call it, is only another convention. Another contrived template, another repertoire of postures, nothing more and nothing less. I like it as long as the writer gets that, and uses it accordingly. The kind of writing I don’t like is the stuff I call lethally competent. Language that takes no chances, that seeks to efface itself as language, as a material, and offer the clear windowpane on reality, et cetera. The kind of prose a review might call pellucid, or limpid. Pellucid, limpid is the biggest insult there is, to me. In every genus of art, the stuff that has lasted has made a demand.
I interviewed Rachel Kushner last year and one thing she said seems like it might apply to your writing too—“I don’t really believe that the backstory is the story you need.” Is it a conscious decision of yours not to dig deep into a character’s past?
Yes. I try to stick to the moment, to the now of the action. Tense is irrelevant. You can do it in the past tense. What Kushner said is a way of thinking about it that resonates with me. Backstory, exposition, anything that draws back or looks to perspectivize—these hold little interest to me at moment. Not to say that won’t change. Certainly in the short-story form, what attracted me was the way my favorite stories were like a lightning flash. Nothing existed before or after them, and in the instant of their illumination, they are all that exists.
It’s one area where I’m not maximalistically inclined, perhaps. I am continuously amazed at how much you can leave out in a short story—how much of that cod-psychological case-study stuff you can ditch. It does not take much, if the furnished details are interesting enough, for a reader to engage with a character or story. Some books simply don’t trust readers—and worse, don’t even know that they don’t trust them.
What makes for good dialogue, in your view?
I look at dialogue spatially, in terms of its placement on the page, the way it breaks up the otherwise solid blocks of text. The reader, in the corner of their eye, can see it coming, can anticipate a shift in rhythm and pacing, the speed at which their eye will move laterally and vertically along the page. In terms of making dialogue “good,” there has to be a rhythm, some sort of cadence. Readers will buy ornate or otiose phrasing if it’s biding by the flow in which the speaker talks. As a writer, don’t be stingy. Give the characters good lines, give them the best. Every so often you come across writers who give the omniscient narrator or diegetic voice these rich powers of articulation, but the characters all talk like dummies.
What does a typical writing day look like for you right now?
Oh man, like a snow-blind TV channel, at the moment.
Has the success of Young Skins surprised you?
Of course. I ultimately spent three to four years working on the stories that ended up in it. In that time, the only publisher I knew that would take it was the tiny independent press, Stinging Fly, in Dublin. They have a small but very fine back catalogue, so I felt fairly secure that the book wasn’t an utter embarrassment, artistically. But to the larger publishers, as we are told over and over, a short-story collection is about as welcome as a ricin envelope in the post. Much of the credit has to go down to Declan Meade, the book’s first editor and the guy who runs the Stinging Fly Press. He worked on it with me for as long as it took. He puts his life into the magazine and the books they put out.
When you pick up Young Skins now and look back on the stories—stories you finished writing a few years ago—what are the things in there that surprise you?
What strikes me now about Young Skins, and most of my writing, is that the characters usually know each other quite well. And there are lots of double acts—pairings of guys who are almost as close as siblings. Arm and Dympna in “Calm with Horses,” Jimmy and Tug in “The Clancy Kid,” Matteen and Teddy in “Bait.” It’s like any community. It develops its shibboleths, its customs and codes, its own way of talking to itself.
If you grow up in a small town and every weekend go to shoot pool and sink beers and encounter the same fifty faces over the course of the night, then every weekend becomes a rehearsal for the next. It’s like an ad hoc play you are performing in over and over again, so you develop a script. And the sheer routineness of community life engenders creativity. You have to come up with new ways of saying the same old thing, of standing the same old ring of faces.
Jonathan Lee is a British writer. His new novel, High Dive, will be published in the U.S. in March 2016.