The Short Story Interview: Colin Barrett

Interview by Foye McCarthy

Hi, Colin. A lot gets said (by writers like Richard Ford, etc.) about short story writing basically being a national art form for the Irish: does this sense of being part of the Irish short story tradition matter to you as an Irish writer?

The Irish short story as some sort of tradition, as a tissue of canonical texts, meant very little to me. What mattered was the contemporary scene – the fact that journals like the Stinging Fly Magazine were keeping the form alive and active, and bringing through new voices, like Kevin Barry, Philip O’Ceallaigh and Mary Costello, and later Sara Baume and Lisa McInerney. It made the short story form tangible, it made writing in this mode not entirely hopeless. I’ve no time for the necrophilic reader – the reader who insists they read only the safely dead. The dead aren’t much use if you see no one alive on the landscape.

The structure of short stories gets talked about a lot – the idea that they’re either novels in miniature, or should have something closer to the loose aesthetic of poetry, etc. – and I always feel that your stories have a great sense of narrative drive (of cause and effect, of event, and so on) whilst still having a loose, free feel. Do you think about plot and structure a lot? Is it very pre-planned for you, or do you just go with the flow of ideas?

Well thank you, kind of you to say so! I certainly don’t plan ahead. I do sit and wait, a lot, between paragraphs or sections. I’m not particularly imaginative, but I’m dogged. The short story encourages symmetry as much as, if not more than, sequentiality. Every image or event will have its antipode, albeit perhaps in disguised or encrypted form. Though you have to be careful to not have a story that is too much like a clockwork machine. That would be my wariness as regards the workshop model. It’s in the nature of workshop model to privilege the already written over the unwritten, but the unwritten is, of course, where the best stuff usually still resides. It can frustrate students/writers, to tell them, I don’t need less, I need more, but that’s often how it is. Needing less of what is already there is relatively easy, a case of excising and refining. You can winnow a story down until every piece of it is pulling exactly its own weight, but then it’s dead. Impressive, perhaps, but dead. There should always be something loose, something extra, some malformation or flagrancy, in there. Of course you can fuck that up, too. But you have to work against a story’s inclination to turn itself into a mechanism.

I was interested to see you write about David Foster Wallace as an influence, particularly because of his idea that “really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it”. Does this type of tension play a part in your writing? I ask this because you seem to typically chose quite dire settings with unattractive characters in miserable situations, but you impressively never come across as cynical, nor do you read as wholly depressing, which is what you’d usually expect from such circumstances. Is there an active attempt to achieve this in your prose?

One of my greatest fears about writing is patronizing my characters, and therefore patronizing the reader. This happens a lot in American fiction, much as I love it, where the author’s intelligence is relentlessly interposed between you and the characters, and the author simply never lets you past it. The greats, like Faulkner, can overcome this tendency. Writers a tier below that, like Updike –well, you read a page of his prose and you know he’s a genius, and his prose certainly thinks he’s a genius, but what about the story? Foster Wallace was certainly partial to that. I think in Infinite Jest he did overthrow that impediment, daft as that is to stay about a work that still contains hundreds of pages of interminable showing off. It’s the only thing in his body of work where he successfully does, in my opinion. His first novel is unreadable, his stories save a couple in Oblivion aren’t up to much. His essays are the antithesis of Infinite jest, where all his worst traits are given free reign. I think in Young Skins I did do some showing off, and I wished I hadn’t. But it is what it is. What maybe redeems the stories is probably the only useful insight I had during the composition of the book – don’t patronize the characters. That other stuff in that quote ‘illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it (the world).’ That just flies over my head. I don’t know what that means. I don’t know what use those kind of woolly abstractions have when you are actually trying to write. That’s just blurbese. Who isn’t alive? Who isn’t human? You are starting at these positions – you are looking to overthrow or evade then- not moving toward them.

Would you willingly be mates with the characters in your stories?

Yes, but they would have the wherewithal to correctly give me the cold shoulder.

One thing that really strikes me about Young Skins is just how much it feels like small town Ireland (I’m more familiar with the small towns of Cork rather than your Mayo, but I know the night time roar of boy racers, the atmosphere of tiny clubs, etc., and you capture these things perfectly). Is there a real attempt to try capture post-recession Ireland in your writing, and to try to speak to it? Is it important to you to try and analyse these places, at this moment in time?

There was no conscious analysis, no conscious urge to capture a sociological or socioeconomic phase or aura. History takes care of itself – again, you’re already neck deep in it.

What, for you, makes the short story such an attractive form?

It is hard to do well, and often extremely frustrating, but it is never boring, I don’t think.

Which recent short story writers have particularly inspired you?

If by recent, you mean alive: the American writer Joy Williams has a big selected stories out with the UK imprint Tuskar Rock Press called The Visiting Privilege. I’ve been reading it on and off for the last year or so. Essential if you are writing stories.

What’s the best advice you’ve received for writing short fiction?

I would recommend any short story writers to read Elif Batumen’s incredible polemic against the contemporary, ‘dead’ short story in N+1. She ruthlessly enumerates the worst traits of the modern short story, its false urgencies and compensatory pieties, but her message in the end is vital and enlivening: write ‘with dignity, not in guilt.’


Colin Barrett is a writer from County Mayo, Ireland. He has received the Guardian First Book Award and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and his stories have been published in the New Yorker, Granta, the Paris Review, the Guardian, and the Stinging Fly.

Foye McCarthy recently won the London Short Story competition 2016. He was an award-winning student journalist at the Warwick Boar and is also a book reviewer for places such as the London Magazine. 

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