Colin Barrett: young guns come out blazing

Colin is Irelands's coolest new author – so why is he obsessed with the small town he made up?

Arts+Culture Q+A
Colin-Barrett

“My town is nowhere you have been, but you know its ilk” begins the splendid opening story in Irish whippersnapper Colin Barrett’s freakishly good debut collection Young Skins. Born and raised in County Mayo and a graduate of the creative writing MA at University College Dublin, Barrett has knocked up a cohesive rabble of seven pretty much pitch-perfect tales, all set in a small town in western Ireland, the ilk of which you might know: “A roundabout off a national road, an industrial estate, a five-screen Cineplex, a century of pubs packed inside the square mile of the town’s limits.” Coming out rusty-shotguns-blazing, and assuredly joining a venerable literary tradition that’s produced such legends of the short form as John McGahern, Edna O’Brien and more recently our beloved Claire Keegan, Barrett’s astonishingly mature stories windmill with violent abandon into our time. The ruddy farmers of convention now run remote weed-grows, a cat O.D.’s on cocaine, a smalltime henchman brutalizes a paedophile, someone’s leg gets blown off with a big old gun. It is all beautifully, classily, decidedly Irishly done. We phoned Colin up to congratulate him and talk it all over.      

Congratulations! Where do we find you right now?

Right now I’m at me mam’s house. But I’m living with my girlfriend in Mullingare, which is just west of Dublin. We’re just there for a year. I’m still in Ireland, anyway.

Are you living back in the town on which the ‘Glanbeigh’ of Young Skins is based?

Oh no. It’s a composite of a few different places in the west of Ireland, I suppose. I’m not living there any more, but I’m back all the time. I come back a lot. When I first left and I went to Dublin - from the countryside to a biggish city – I was delighted to be out of it. But then you start coming back, and you start to appreciate what was there a bit more. I think my relationship with the place is still good, you know? Wary, but benign.

Dazed: Are there any real people from back home who might recognize themselves as characters in the book?

Colin Barrett: There’s no real direct ones. But most of my friends here are actually like “Put me in the book! And make it more explicit next time, so I can tell everybody it’s me! I don’t care if I come off like a shithead!” Anybody here who’s read it; my friends, friends of my mother and stuff like that, even older people: I’ve been incredibly nervous about how they’d take it, but everyone’s received it well, and they get it. It’s not having a go at the place or anything.

It seems like quite a fond portrait of a place in a lot of ways…

Colin Barrett: Yeah, well some reviews said it’s very very bleak, and some have picked up on the humour and stuff. I think certainly it’s a ubiquitous trait in Ireland anyway; that sort of adversarial humour. If I’d just bigged-up the place I think people would be more skeptical and hostile towards it, if I’d tried to pretend that where I’m from is nicer than it is, you know?

Sooo many great short story writers have come out of Ireland. Did the weight of the great tradition ever intimidate you, starting out?

Colin Barrett: I think you’re conscious of it, but I mean, you really couldn’t have any of that stuff too much in the forefront of your mind, or it’s going to incapacitate you. Sure there is a great canon of Irish writing there, but a lot of the short story writers who had a more practical impact on me as I was writing were American. But those great Irish writers are always in the back of your mind alright.

Which American writers were big influences?

Colin Barrett: Well when I was growing up I went through periods of reading and trying to write awful poetry, and I progressed on to the novel and I was trying to write novels and they were just disasters. They were my first attempts at prose pieces, but really they weren’t anything. And then just through the process of reading I got onto short stories. That was when I came across Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. Then like, Flannery O’Connor as well – she’s just a tremendous writer. I got into a lot of writers from the American South, like Barry Hannah. Such incredibly brilliant stuff; just endlessly hilarious. Funny, and aesthetically really interesting on a sentence-by-sentence level, all the time. You just learn off them.

 I always had this need after that to just participate. Anything I get into, I need to do it, you know? 

It’s modern and violent and preoccupied with youngsters, but Young Skins does kind of feel like the work of an ‘old soul.’ Do you ever regret that you weren’t born a bit earlier, in the ‘golden age of publishing,’ as opposed to this twittering world?

Colin Barrett: Well, I don’t know. I mean, there was a reputedly ‘golden age,’ and you’ll see endless articles about it, but it was just a happy coincidence of history and stuff. In the States, the Creative Writing courses sprung up, and with the GI Bill post-World War II people could go to university. Mass circulation magazines like the New Yorker didn’t have competition in terms of the internet or even really TV, so writers could earn a year’s salary with a story in the New Yorker. But no, I’m happy where I am, you know? I think it’s an interesting time.

That it is. Are we better off now we’re all on the internet so much, yathink?

Colin Barrett: I feel like with the internet, and with all these avenues, I get access to films and books and stuff that I definitely wouldn’t otherwise, you know? And maybe someone from my background or whatever wouldn’t have got those opportunities in that ‘golden age.’ The internet’s a great leveler: it has good and bad points. You have this thing where you can suck culture from any part of the world into your house! It’s amazing. But on the other hand: I think to a degree you would just find these things anyway, you know? Like when I first went to college in Dublin, I would just spend hours and hours every week, on my own in the library reading all the books and poems and novels and biographies of the writers I loved that I could find. It was a great few years of just inhaling all that stuff. And I always had this need after that to just participate. Anything I get into, I need to do it, you know? I don’t know, maybe there’s a culture of passivity now, in some way. I’m just somebody who has to do stuff, you know? I love writing and reading, so I was never going to not do it. I had to do it no matter what. So the internet and all that has been a great way to get more access to stuff, and that just keeps you going, you know?      

Young Skins is out now, published by Jonathan Cape

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