Interview with Colin Barrett, author of ‘Young Skins’

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We spoke to Colin Barrett about his writing career and his truly brilliant short story collection ‘Young Skins’. As a young and emerging author he has already won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Guardian First Book Award and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. Impressive to say the least. The short stories of Young Skins are centred in a place described; “…nowhere you have been, but you know its ilk.” This rings true throughout Colin’s book and its theme of local life. His exploration of the human condition and his intuitive, confident assessment is dark and adopts a consistent sense of foreboding and instability. Yet it is a fragile dynamic that works beautifully, there is something in this book for everyone and the stories are ones that can be read again and again.

The London Magazine Interview with Colin Barrett

I spent a lot of time in a small country side town myself growing up and I have always found it difficult to put my finger on the love / hate relationship young people have with the environment there.  To me your work really probes the hostility towards small towns full of pubs in the recession yet also highlights the familiarity and fondness of home; the beauty of a treacherous wild landscape. It is a very complicated and under examined dynamic I think. So I was delighted to come across your book. The TV Drama ‘Skins’ by Jack O’Connell in 2014 reminded me a little bit of your stories – in that he suggests the countryside or small rural towns are underrepresented as a literary / film artefact. A lot of writers seem to forget that not everyone and everything happens in major cities. There is definitely a trend recently of going back to ones roots and writing about home towns. Is this a theme you want to continue with, the Glanbeigh theme?

I enjoyed writing ‘in’ Glanbeigh. It furnished me with all the characters and scenarios I was interested in writing about, though those subjects aren’t always apparent to you beforehand. It was also of course a way of tapping indirectly into your own experiences. Life, no matter how ostensibly mundane, has an ineffable texture to it, and trying to capture that in writing is a difficult thing. Eventually, you have to start writing back towards your own self and experiences. It’s risky in a lot of ways, but it has to be done. I can see myself setting more material in similar places.

I love how you write your characters, especially those who might otherwise blend into the background. Jack’s mother has an almost ubiquitous presence and her role is so important even though her expression is subtle. Then the alcoholic who lost his fingers for instance, he comes across as a different breed of tough, his character is comic and tragic all at the same time. I think this is an element of addiction that people often forget – the way people make light of themselves or their personality becomes a caricature of the farcical nature of addiction. Did you find a lot of these characters? 

You meet them everywhere. There’s less of them in smaller towns, so they stand out more. One homeless alcoholic in a small town can become a kind of fixture, and can, in some accumulated, community wide way, be looked after or at least humanised to a degree. But walking down certain streets in a city you encounter a dozen of them.

Do you think it is easier to write and be creative when you’re not in London or Dublin or a big city? Coastal towns or small towns are often written as being bleak whereas cities are cited as the place to be creatively. But sometimes I think the opposite is true. What has been your experience?

I can write in both places, but in fact I wrote most of Young Skins in Dublin, while living quite close to the city centre. I didn’t really consider if it was the best place to write or not, to be honest, and that was probably a good thing. I just got down to it. The most practical thing about being in a city is there is more chance of getting to meet and hang out with people with similar interests, that is, other writers. Writing is a solitary and consuming pursuit at the best of times. It’s good to meet similarly impassioned people and know you’re not alone in your compulsion.

On the process of becoming a commercially successful writer:

Like a lot of writers I genuinely thought the things I was writing were not good enough, or about relatively insignificant subjects, to merit winning anything. Young Skins, as a collection, has done well, and it feels only terrific to have received such a positive response, but that was never in my mind as a serious proposition, that I was crafting a prize winner. Just getting the book finished felt like a monumental achievement. I’ve never tried self-publishing so I can’t speak informatively on it.

How important do you think a literary education is in order to write? From my experience a lot of people choose an undergraduate degree that they later feel no longer fits with them, or they change and reach 25 wishing they you had studied something else. Do you think it’s easy to make the transition? Or do you think it’s not necessary and you should just write? How much did your MA in creative writing shape your work?

A ‘literary education’ to me just means reading. Reading extensively, and diversely. No point trying to write if you don’t already read relentlessly. The good thing about writing is you can come to it for the first time, or come back to it, whenever. You can be any age. The MA thing is always hard to gauge: I was working in an office job for five years and by my late twenties felt I had to give writing a sustained go sooner rather than later. And in financial terms, the MA in Ireland was not expensive. (Try not to go into debt to write! -you’ll only end up resenting it.) The few years I’d taken out of college were good for me. I’d matured a little bit as a person, and quite a bit as an aspiring writer. Had I just stumbled into a writing course as a fresh graduate I don’t think I would have gotten as much out of it. But nobody actually thinks you necessarily need an MA to become a good writer.

One of the early reviews of your short stories said that your writing raises important questions. What issues were you trying to highlight or were you just writing what felt familiar to you?

I was not consciously trying to highlight any issues, and I was indifferent to the familiarity or otherwise of the material to my own life. You can write out of passion, or with some ambitious intellectual take of an issue or theme, initially, but you have to go to a cold, disinterested, and essentially mindless level to finish work. I think many readers and aspiring writers find that prospect unsatisfactory or discomfiting, but it’s the truth.

The little details you include make your work strangely comforting because the details are so familiar – the colloquial and constant things that make up Glanbeigh life. It’s a strange dichotomy – these things become nostalgic when you’re reading as someone who is no longer in a place like Glanbeigh, but also a reminder of why you left in the first place. Have you ever spoken to any fans in this position about the book? People who miss the Glanbeigh life they grew up in?

People from where I grew up, and in townlands similar to where I grew up, have only been positive to the book. The ones that have bothered to speak to me, at any rate! They get what’s happening in Young Skins.

The critical reception surrounding your work has been immense. You really capture post-boom Ireland life in a way that I don’t think anyone else has. Do you feel pressure now when writing because your debut was such a great success?

Yes. Lots of pressure. But I was asking for it.

What advice would you give to young writers starting out and trying to make a career or a living from literature?

Read. And start working on being patient, if you are not.

By Tara Flynn