Narrated by Lilly Bere, On Canaan’s Side opens as she mourns the loss of her grandson, Bill. The story then goes back to the moment Lilly was forced to flee Dublin, at the end of the First World War, and follows her life through into the new world of America, a world filled with both hope and danger. It’s the hugely enjoyable new novel from Sebastian Barry, author of the Costa-winning The Secret Scripture, just longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize for Fiction.
If you’re going to be anywhere near London or Edinburgh in August, or County Dublin in September, or Cheltenham, Bath or Belfast in October, I urge you to try to see Sebastian in conversation at any of the festivals or bookshop events he’s doing. There’s no one better at bringing their books to life. In the meantime, we were lucky to have a few minutes of the author’s time to find out more on the novel, family history, America, bluegrass music and the novelist’s lot.
A Q & A with Sebastian Barry …
I wanted to start by asking you if you could say a little about the title of your new novel, On Canaan’s Side. Where it comes from and whether you had it before you began?
SB: It’s the name of an American folk hymn, if that’s the phrase. It’s actually not an especially beautiful song maybe. I was reading somewhere about the day Dr Martin Luther King was killed. It mentioned a remark by one of the appalled newsreaders, that the tragedy was compounded by the fact that he was killed ‘on Canaan’s side’, that is to say, in a country of refuge and safety.
I was also reading somewhere else about Jacob wrestling with the mysterious man/angel through the night, on the shores of the Jordan, when he was trying to pass back into Canaan from Egypt. Lilly of course has sought refuge in America. She has certainly wrestled with angels.
Lilly, as we find out, is the sister of Willie Dunne, from A Long Long Way, and Annie Dunne, from your novel of the same name. Without being too literal, I wondered if you could sketch a little of their origins and what is it that’s drawn you back to these characters and this family?
I first started writing about Lilly, about them all, in a play called The Steward of Christendom in 1993. She appears there as Dolly, which was a nickname. They were the family of my great-grandfather, a chief-superintendent in the Dublin Metropolitan Police, before independence, and therefore a highly vexed and complicated ancestor. Annie I knew as a woman in her seventies, and loved her. Lilly I believe I met just the once, in the Sixties, when I was small – a woman in an American print dress, in the summer, full of life, the happiest person I ever remember seeing as a child. What draws me back to them is the sense of enormous disruption and difficulty caused by their position in history, milled by the millstones of two political dispensations.
Did you have these three books in mind, as a kind of series, or is it more that things suggest themselves as you progress in your work?
I had Lilly in mind as a book since about 2005, because I had just written about her brother Willie. I had sent him to the First World War, and was wondering what it would be like to follow Lilly to America. Then a cousin of mine was in touch, who told me a terrifying thing, that there had been another brother, and did I know that he had been murdered by the IRA in Chicago? I said I hadn’t known that, but later I wondered, had I known it somewhere, in the secret honeycombs of the DNA?
So that brought Lilly very vividly to mind, and I was then somewhat alarmed for her, retrospectively, as someone who had ‘come through slaughter’. Because it appears both she and her brother had been obliged to leave Ireland, very suddenly, under an imminent death sentence. In the novel of course the story is told somewhat differently. So it’s not really a very conscious series, more like trying to cross a sometimes flooded river by its stepping stones, each book a stone.
You moved from Picador to Faber with Annie Dunne, but it was the publication of the novel after that, A Long Long Way, that saw a shift in your fortunes as a novelist. Why do you think it was that people reacted so positively to in that particular novel?
I have no idea! I had been writing plays for quite a while, and was very lucky to be known therefore a little as a dramatist. The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty in 1998 was the first novel I had published in about ten years (there were some ‘apprentice’ prose books in the eighties) and Annie Dunne followed, but I was still known mostly as a playwright. But something did happen with A Long Long Way. I was writing it in 2003, feeling rather confused by life in general, and the purpose of writing in particular, and I went to the Toronto Festival of Authors. There in the Green Room I listened to the likes of Ali Smith and AS Byatt, just talking. They radiated purpose and trust in the absolute medicine of prose. They seemed to me like veterans, like soldiers. And I had been trying to write about soldiers. The room looked out over Toronto harbour. Something in what they said restored my faith. I went home and cut some of the book, and started again.
Going back to On Canaan’s Side, I wondered how you found it writing in and about America? Is it a place you know, or have travelled in?
I have been going to America since 1973, when I hitched about with a friend for a summer (I have never forgotten those shattered looking men at street corners in every podunk town, veterans of the Vietnam war). I have lived there for short periods. Some of the things important to me, in the matter of memory and survival, have happened there. Like many an Irish person, I have a secret legion of unknown cousins there. They went before me, and no doubt many will go there after. It is a sort of Canaan, just as England was, for Irish people of all persuasions. But it is also the source of most of our founding myths, I mean, for instance, when I was a child. Not Cu Chullain so much as the Marx Brothers. It is a land of the imagination that one can actually go out to. It is full of answers that are posed as questions. It felt like a privilege to write about Lilly there, as if being let through the gate into a field of wheat one had only seen from a distance.
It also has a span of nearly seventy years. Did you have to do a lot of research, or historical reading to feel confident enough to write about these different periods (WWII, Vietnam and the assassinations of the ‘60s, the first Gulf War)?
I do like to read as much as I can, if only as the beachcomber likes to run his metal detector over the beach. The significance of the coin may not be fully understood. But it may be very suggestive all the same. I have various obsessions, such as the history of the Ohio Canal, built mostly by the Chinese and the Irish. It was a tremendous construction that was already dying and fading in the 1910s, which is a strange thought in America. Cleveland also haunts me, because I had an old friend there. There is a book called The Book of Cleveland, written in the optimism of the early fifties, after the war. Like a bible really, all the names that ever meant anything in Cleveland. The history of the use of wampum as a currency … The fate of the Native Americans … The strange resolve of Irish-American secret societies, resolute and terrible all in one. The White House Cookbook actually existed.
But some history is in the mouths of people we know. My friend Margaret Synge had a grandson in the Irish Guards. He came home from Afghanistan and was full of plans for the future. But he took his own life. Margaret was in her eighties and quite ill at the time. She said to me ‘Why didn’t He take me? I was ready to go.’ The saddest and the bravest thing I have ever heard. It was that really that prompted the book ultimately.
There’s a wonderful evocation of music in this novel too, particularly bluegrass and mountain music. Was this something you were interested in before, or was it a result of where Lilly took you?
I love American folk music, much to the despair of my wife and children as we drive in the car, and have done since I was a child. My aunt was a singer and her record company in America, Traditional Records, used to send her their recordings, which I played obsessively. There were also spoken folk stories on them sometimes. More recently I have listened to Ralph Stanley, who is an unquantifiable original. This was hugely helpful to me in trying to understand say the character of Mr Nolan, who is of Irish descent, from the Aran Islands maybe two generations back, and who therefore still uses a few Irish phrases, but otherwise knows nothing about his forebears. Irishness is thoroughly hiding in him, like the original Irish tunes in American songs and music.
I remember first reading Annie Dunne, some years ago, and thinking there were strange echoes in there of some of the great writers of the South, like Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers. Are there any writers you think had an influence on that novel, particularly?
Annie Dunne was the first novel I wrote in the first person. The greatest proponent of this is of course is a mid-westerner, Hemingway. In the past I had always thought of the long novel as the holy grail of writing. But there seemed something immensely difficult, in the way that prompts the writer in his or her private mind, in making a book that was small, and maybe tense, and maybe in so low a register it was almost inaudible. So private it was almost unspoken. I think the book owes a bit of a debt to Katherine Mansfield and no doubt Seamus Heaney …
As a writer, you’ve also published poetry and continue to be a hugely acclaimed playwright. It’s probably not a clear or even a conscious process, but I wonder how you decide what form a story is going to take, and at what sort of stage?
I think it has been one of the oddities of my writing life that the stage has crept into my novels, and the novel form into my plays. I’m not sure the latter has overly benefitted from it. The first person narrative is in the first instance a branch, a little department, of performance. Therefore I always take a great interest in the audio book! But of course a book literally ‘speaks for itself’, and a play has others to speak it. The play is highly compressed in a hard to itemize way, and though the novel is also under pressure, it is different, because it is as if the reader has allowed the teller say the passage of a week, rather than just two hours. The novel exists because of this generosity of readers. The theatre that the novel exists in is the daily world and unknown rooms of the reader. Now as I say this I realise I don’t know why one thing becomes a novel, and another a play. The wood of a play is smaller and shorter, maybe. If you find a long piece of wood you are reluctant to cut it up! So you make a novel. Maybe!
What’s your writing set-up, do you write long hand or straight onto computer? And has this changed over the years?
Since my old friend David Berber gave me a ramshackle old computer in the mid-nineties I have written on a computer, because it actually seems to me a very ancient object, as old as the mind itself you might say, and until you print-out, the novel is floating in the cranial fluid as it were of the computer’s innards. It is like a well or cup of the imagination.
I will write sections sometimes in black ink, and occasionally note something on scraps of paper in my pockets. I have even pressed some sharp object like a car key into paper scraps when caught without a pen, say walking in the mountains here, and then held it up to the light at home in the hope it has left some trace! Or repeated sentences over and over in the long descent down Slieverua. I have a superstition about writing anywhere but in Ireland, and probably regard my workroom as pretty essential, truth to tell. This is just writer’s hokum no doubt, but there it is. I have a bottle of Parker’s ink I have had since the seventies when I began, with a drop left in it. I bought my pen in America in 1984.
Do you tend to write in a linear fashion in order to get a first draft, or do you write sections as they come and then piece it together?
I seem to spend about nine months or a year getting the first chapter. I go at it again and again till it sounds okay, or right, or right enough. I sit there for weeks sometimes, like a crazy fool. It is like waiting for a ticket to go somewhere. I do believe I go slightly mad waiting. It seems to be something allied to catching the tune of something, the whistle tune, the birdsong of a book. Seasons pass! And then, suddenly, the book breaks from cover and risks the open ground. Then at some point I might have an intimation of the ending, and write that. The ending is the Ithaca of the book, and as Cavafy said, Ithaca gives you the journey. Otherwise I try to write straight through the book, because there is an inner logic in the DNA of sentences that you might miss if you were to patch sections together. And anyway I am at some point doing my best just to hold on to the mane of the book, as it starts to canter of its own volition.
Finally, and don’t answer this if it’s too soon to say, but what are you working on now?
I am actively ‘not writing’ a play, which hopefully is the prelude to actively writing it. And reading odd books about bomb disposal, the Bengal Lancers, gun running in the Red Sea, and the beauty and danger of the Khyber Pass …
On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry is out now in paperback.