Some say you should never meet your heroes, in case they turn out to have feet of clay. But nothing was going to stop me going to hear Sebastian Barry at the Oxford Literary Festival. On a cold spring evening, the city’s Sheldonian Theatre was a suitably elegant and historic venue for a conversation between Barry – the author of seven novels, 13 plays and two volumes of poetry – and Chris Patten, an obvious fan.
Although there was a nod to his body of work, much of the discussion centred on Days Without End, Barry’s latest novel, and winner of the 2016 Costa Book of the Year. In breathtakingly poetic prose the book tells the love story of Thomas McNulty and John Cole, two seventeen year-olds who sign up for the US army, to fight in the Indian Wars and the Civil War.
The tale is narrated by Thomas, whose voice is a stunning achievement. But it took a while to find, said Barry. ‘It was frustrating.’ He would go to his workroom ‘dutifully’ every morning, feeling ‘stupidus’ – a Latin word meaning ‘thick’, just as it does in Ireland, he joked. He was nine months into the project before ‘the first sentence arrived, like a herald’ and the book was underway.
In the meantime, he read 300 books on American history. He discovered wonderful nuggets, such as the Native American tradition of braves changing into women’s dress when in camp, and back into braves’ dress when they went to war; one of the many facts seamlessly woven into the novel’s portrayal of the young men’s love. Barry was aware of the risks he was taking. ‘I thought, “No you can’t do that,” he said. ‘So I did that.’
He was engaging and honest on the story’s inspiration: a period of anguish in his family, resolved when his sixteen year-old son Toby revealed that he was gay. Because of the book, his son’s story is now well known. Asked how the young man had reacted to the publicity, Barry said that his children never read his work, but his son had read this book. He liked it. That affirmation, said Barry, was ‘the Nobel Prize, right there’.
Family is at the heart of his work, and relationships between generations – particularly fathers and sons. Even the difficult relationships. ‘You’re letting them in. You’re still in love with them.’ The searing historical detail he includes is part of the novelist’s duty to try to understand ‘the history through which they waded’.
He spoke movingly of his maternal grandfather, who told him wonderful stories of family members, although sometimes he only knew ‘half a sentence’. But ‘that’s enough for a novelist,’ said Barry. ‘You can make the rest up’.
The world of his novels, Barry suggested, was the country he had created for himself, where he felt at home. ‘You want to be a citizen of somewhere – sometimes you call your heart your country.’
Is it easier to be comfortable with an Irish identity nowadays, Chris Patten asked. Barry, who lives in a mixed Catholic and Protestant area of Wicklow, replied, ‘How I long to say yes.’ He was generous in his praise for politicians, such as Patten, who try to achieve peaceful change: ‘an act of magic similar to writing a book. Trying to effect something with love and sincerity.’
Love and sincerity: the hallmarks of a wonderful evening with my writing hero.
In the book signing queue, other fans agreed: we could have listened to him all night.
He was even gracious enough to let me take a selfie…