Kevin Barry & Alenka Jovanovski

Reading time: 12 minutes

In this series of discussions between authors and their translators, we present Irish writer Kevin Barry, who has been awarded numerous prizes, among others the European Union Prize for Literature, and Alenka Jovanovski, a Slovenian poet, essayist, literary critic and literary translator.

The translation was supported by Literature Ireland.

The series of discussions between authors and their translators is organized by KUD Polica Dubova in cooperation with Društvo humanistov Goriške, within the framework of the ‘Migrations in Reality’ project which is co-funded by the Creative Europe programme of the European Union.

Series: Authors & Translators
Online discussion: Kevin Barry (Ireland) & Alenka Jovanovski (Slovenia)
Premiere: 28th April 2021 | City of Books Festival, Nova Gorica
Video with English and Slovenian subtitles

“Every story, every novel, has its own rhythm and its own melody”

Alenka Jovanovski (AJ): So, hello.

Kevin Barry (KB): Hi, Alenka.

AJ: Hi.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the cycle of talks between authors and their translators organized by the Polica Dubova Cultural and Artistic Association, in co-operation with the City of Books Festival, and co-funded by the Creative Europe program of the European Union.

Today, our distinguished guest is Kevin Barry from Ireland, who is not only a very passionate writer, but also shares a passion for music and sound.

Hello, Kevin. I’m very glad to meet you at last.

KB: You too, Alenka, it’s lovely to see you. Thanks for having me.

AJ: Thank you so much for accepting our invitation to this conversation.

Before we start, let me first introduce you briefly to our audience. So far, you have published three collections of short stories. And the last one, That Old Country Music, is from 2020. It’s very recent. And you have also published three novels. All of them were nominated for awards and many of them won prizes.

I would love to talk about other novels, but today’s theme is City of Bohane. This is your debut novel, and it won quite some awards, such as the European Union Prize for Literature, Authors’ Club First Novel Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

And my name is Alenka Jovanovski. I’m the translator of City of Bohane into the Slovenian language.

On literary awards and feedback from readers

AJ: To start with, Kevin, how do you feel about such tremendous feedback on your writing?

KB: Well, in terms of things like winning prizes and stuff like that, there’s nothing not to love about winning book prizes. It’s lovely when it happens. I’m not especially needy, as a writer, I don’t need too much praise and so forth. I have a confidence, I guess, in the work that I want to do myself.

But it’s fantastic when people respond to the work. My books aren’t always straightforward, as you know it yourself, as one of my unfortunate translators having to deal with my language games and my language tricks. I would say the books aren’t for everyone, in terms of readers. So when you do get reactions and reviews and prizes that are very positive, it’s a fantastic thing.

AJ: But do you get direct contact with your readers? Perhaps this is more important.

KB: Yes, of course. At the minute, with the pandemic, I’ve only been doing Zoom events and stuff like that. But more usually I do a lot of festivals and readings. And it is something that I cherish, to meet readers. And everyone has a different version of your novel that they’ve read. Every reader has their own version and pictures. If there are a thousand readers of your novel, there are a thousand different versions of it out there. Everybody sees it in a different way. It’s really intriguing sometimes to hear what they make of it.

I’ve had a very interesting experience with some French readers. They think I’m very dark. They think I am a very dark writer. And there is definitely darkness in the books, but I don’t think that the comedy comes across so much in French. Even though there’s violence and there’s crime, and criminals, and a lot of dark occurrences in the books, I do consider myself, essentially, a comic writer. I think comedy is the form, in literature or in art generally, that’s truest to human experience and to the way we get through life as humans.

Subverting readers’ expectations

AJ: I agree very much. It’s very hard to write comedy. In the City of Bohane, what I admired most, was this strange mix of very dark tones, really Nick Cave-like, or something really dark, and very strong from the emotional point of view. But on the other hand, there are these twists, comic twists. I love this mixture. It is very much in my vein.

Kevin Barry: City of Bohane (
Kevin Barry: City of Bohane (2011, Ireland)

KB: What I like to do a lot is I try to subvert the reader’s expectation. So the reader is reading the book and thinking it’s one type of book, and maybe I’m trying to pull the rug from under them a bit: ‘No, it’s not that.’

It’s a while since I wrote City of Bohane. It was my first published novel, not the first novel I attempted, by any means, but the first novel I published. And for example, if there is a lyric passage in City of Bohane, describing landscape or whatever, immediately thereafter there would be sort of a comic line to try and subvert the lyric passage. And I think that’s a young man’s trick. You try to – I don’t know if the expression is common – have your cake and eat it. You try to get away with doing the one thing two ways.

But it’s interesting to look back at it now, because I wrote City of Bohane, I think, in 2009 and 2010, and I think it’s very much a first novel. In terms of the structure itself, I do think there’s great vitality in the language and I can sense my own excitement, at the time, in trying to describe this world.

Playing with language and sounds

AJ: I sensed this excitement for language, and I worked very much with your language. So my first question, actually, is: Where does it come from, your zest for writing, this lust for playing with the sounds of Irish English and with dialect and speech? I ask this question because this quality is very much present in City of Bohane. And could you tell us more about how your language was formed? You are originally from Limerick?

KB: Yeah, I’m from Limerick City originally, which is Ireland’s third biggest city. And then I spent a lot of time in Cork City.

The City of Bohane is an imaginary place, but it has elements of both Limerick and Cork, especially the language that’s used by the working classes in those cities. And it was kind of a great discovery for me when I started to write City of Bohane, because that language had never really shown up before in Irish literature. The working-class communities in those cities weren’t involved in writing books, they were doing other things. They didn’t have those opportunities, really.

Maybe in Irish theatre, and plays, that language came in a little bit more, but certainly in novels it hadn’t come in. So it felt like a real treasure trove of material and a new way of telling a story, to use that language.

The way we speak English in Ireland, especially in these small cities like Limerick and Cork, it’s very strange, you know. It’s got another language behind it, which is Irish, which we spoke until 200 years ago. The way we form sentences and bend words – a lot of it comes from the way sentences are formed in the Irish language. So it’s a very strange kind of hybrid take on the English language. Which means it’s very unusual and you can do beautiful things with it. But it’s not always easy for translators. And it works a lot on sound, I think.

AJ: Yes, I’ve noticed.

KB: It works a lot on rhythm and sound.

AJ: This I noticed and I enjoyed very much, this rhythm and sound. I tried to recreate that in Slovenian. But the readers will have their say… And the hardest thing, in fact, speaking about language, the hardest thing for me to capture in Slovenian, was the spirit of dialogues in City of Bohane, how to recreate this remarkable vividness, how to combine its realistic aspect and the humour, so that it would function.

The secret of Irish conversation as revealed in City of Bohane

AJ: And I remember fighting very much with Jenni Ching, with Girly, and so on. Your characters are very much vivid. So my question is: What was your work process? How did you manage to get those characters talking in such a vivid way? Did they pop out of your head?

KB: It wasn’t difficult to get them talking. It was hard to make them shut up. You know, once they started talking, there was no stopping them.

It’s funny, I recorded the audio book myself, of City of Bohane, as I’ve done of all my novels. And you learn a lot about your own book when you read it aloud from start to finish. I felt, for me, by far my favourite characters were Girly and Jenni. I thought they were the most vivid and the most vivacious characters in the book, and also very tricky. You never quite know what they’re up to. I think they’re very emblematic of something in Irish talk, in Irish conversation, or in Irish speech, which is, that it all goes along.

We love to talk and we’re good at it. And it all goes along like that on the surface. But there’s a lot that’s not being said. The actual meaning of an Irish conversation could take years to figure out. So, though we talk a lot, sometimes we’re not saying very much. And there’s all these little power struggles and battles going on just underneath the surface of the language. And I think that’s very evident with Jenni and with Girly in the book.

Women taking over

KB: I like to think that City of Bohane is a matriarchy. It’s the story of a 20th century world becoming a 21st century world. The women are definitely taking over. Girly, essentially, is running the city, even though she’s bed-bound and she’s drinking bottles of whiskey and eating lots of pills and smoking spliffs, she’s still kind of running the show. Everybody else thinks they are, but Girly is really still the ‘éminence grise’, she’s the one who’s pulling all the strings. She’s the puppet master back there. So, she’s maybe my number one favourite character in the story.

AJ: Yes. But in the end, what I was puzzled by was this mention in the last scene of City of Bohane where there are girls that belong to Jenni Ching, and they wear groin-kickers [boots]. It sounded very funny at first, but then I thought to myself: What then is the difference between arse-kickers and groin-kickers?

KB: Oh, it’s very, very particular. That last scene, as I remember now, Jenni has just taken over, essentially, and it’s kind of a presidential guard that she has marching down the Bohane River with her. It’s a ritual scene, just to show that she’s now the power in the city and also to show that the girls are in charge.

Writing with your ear

AJ: Yes, this is evident. But I wanted to ask something else as well, also connected to the language. In one of your interviews on YouTube, I remember one sentence that made me think very much. You said: ‘All my work starts from people talking and not speaking, really. If you get the people to talk, you can get their souls from that.’ That seems very interesting to me. Could you tell us something more about that?

KB: Yes. I think your most essential tool, as a writer, is your ear. And in terms of tuning into speech and the way people express themselves and the way they hold things back, I do think if you can get the way people speak on the page – and it’s very difficult to do it – if you can get it, you get everything else, you get their hearts and souls.

It’s interesting, when I’m thinking of new characters in a story, whether it’s a short story or a novel, I’m not necessarily thinking about what they’re going to say. I think a lot about how they physically hold themselves in the world, what kind of stance they have, how they arrange their bodies in the world. If you can picture the characters very clearly like that, you’ll start to hear them.

Very often I’m writing about characters from Irish working-class backgrounds. And the stance, the physical stance – very often it’s men from those backgrounds – the physical stance is very defensive, shoulder forward and tense. And in that kind of stance, there are hundreds of years of history, and religion, and politics, and class, and all of those things. If you can get the way people are presenting themselves physically in the world, you can start to hear them. And once you have the voices right, everything else can follow on from that.

But I work at the dialogue a great deal in all of my books. The dialogue sections are the parts that get rewritten and rewritten and rewritten constantly. I act them out. I perform them with a pen in hand and fix them that way as well. Because definitely the engines for my stories are those dialogue bursts.

On characters becoming one’s little family

AJ: You have a great interest in Irish people, in people in general. You must be a very good observer. Regarding your characters, do you feel them in your body?

KB: That’s a very interesting question. Some characters are always more vivid to you than others. In terms of City of Bohane, Girly and Jenni were always very vivid to me, whereas the main characters in the book, Logan and the Gant, were more shadowy kind of presences. I don’t think it’s a measure of one character being a more successful creation than another.

But you do have special feeling, I think, for some of your characters. And it can be an annoyance as much as an inspiration. Characters can be so vivid to you that you can’t get rid of them. You can’t sleep. They’re talking all night and then they’re insisting on getting onto the page all the time. So you have to control them and be in charge of your characters, so they don’t take the story off in the wrong direction and destroy it.

AJ: In the end, when you finish the novel, how do you part with your characters?

KB: It’s a slightly melancholy feeling, I think, to finish a novel, because it’s like this little family that you’ve created. And in a book like City of Bohane it might be a very troublesome family, a very difficult, violent, tricky family. But still, you do grow close to them. So when you have to wave goodbye, it’s a strange feeling, and a sad one.

When different genres crash into each other

AJ: What I noticed in City of Bohane, but also reading about your last novel, The Night Boat to Tangier, is that your inspiration comes from depicting, from researching the underworld of criminals. How come?

KB: I like when different genres crash into each other and collide. I like to take elements of thrillers, and elements of noir stories or crime fiction, but treat them with a highly literary language and approach, because I think you can make really interesting sparks fly when these different genres and forms crash up against each other.

City of Bohane is very influenced by the television I was watching inn 2009, which was the golden age of American TV. I was watching The Sopranos and The Wire and shows like that, which were some of the best storytelling going on at that time. And I was definitely trying to make my own little world in the way that those shows create these very vivid, enclosed worlds. And they do so with language.

How do you build the world? You build a world with words and with language and with a particular way of expressing.

Prose fiction is a kind of musical form

AJ: Yes, but usually the worlds we live in, the reality we live in, is created by worlds that are kind of modelled. They’re not fresh. So my question would be, because I observe the world also a little bit as an author: When reality pops out, it is when these usual worlds break. Can you connect to this?

KB: I mean, how do you solve that? How do you fix that?

My belief is that writing, prose fiction, is a kind of musical form. I think prose fiction is a kind of music. It’s not a very good form of music. It aspires to be the condition of music. It’s a kind of a disappointed musical form. But I think every story, every novel, has its own rhythm and its own melody. And really you’re just trying to tune into it with your ear. Sometimes you get it, sometimes you write half a page or just a paragraph, a few sentences, and you go: ‘Yeah, that’s it. That’s the tune of this story.’

And often, with a passage that I thought that of, I will print it out and stick it over the desk and use it like a tuning fork. But I do think when writing a novel, the first task, the first job you have is to figure out: what is the rhythm of the story, what does it sound like. Once you get that, you can almost let the rhythm and the sound dictate the events, dictate what happens.

AJ: Thank you for this answer. My experience as a translator of City of Bohane was the same. I had to learn the rhythm. Or create it, learn it.

When the world grows so quiet, what you really hear is yourself

AJ: My last question for today is: What would Kevin Barry, the author, ask himself about the things that have surfaced during this new collective that’s coming into being in the time of pandemic? Is this too difficult a question?

KB: No. I think what’s been very interesting about the pandemic, and especially when it started last year, is that people talked a lot about nature. Because everything in the world had gone so quiet with no traffic, people would say: ‘Oh, I can hear the river, and I can hear the wind and the trees.’ You know what I mean?

But really, when the world grows so quiet, what you really hear is yourself. When your normal life falls away, the normal hustle and day-to-day busyness of your work and all that, when that goes away, you can actually hear yourself in a very clear way. And it can be disconcerting and strange.

So that’s something very vivid and useful that’s happened during the pandemic, we’ve had more space and more quiet to actually think about ourselves and who we are and what we’re trying to do. I hope we come out the other side of it changed in some way, that we’ve got more perspective, a lot of us, on how lucky we are in our circumstances. I try to remind myself that I’m very lucky to get to just go to my shed every day and write these crazy little characters and mad stories.

I think the pandemic will greatly influence a lot of the literature, and novels and stories, that are going to come over the next few years. But I think it will take a long time to see the full effect of it on the way we perceive ourselves as people.

AJ: Yes, so perhaps more silence. More silence and more space for great things to happen, or perhaps more space for the mystique of Big Nothin’, which I loved very much.

KB: For those of you who haven’t read the book yet, Big Nothin’ is the countryside around the City of Bohane. And the phrase comes from – when you’re in an actual Irish city, like Limerick or Cork, people there feel like it’s the centre of the universe. So the rest of the world exists only as a kind of rumour. And it’s all just Big Nothin’ out there, where you are is the centre of the universe. That’s a very Irish view.

AJ: But perhaps it’s the other way around.

KB: Maybe so.

AJ: Thank you very much for this lovely conversation, dear Kevin Barry, and let us, the readers, enjoy your books. And I wish you lots of good pages and good rhythm.

KB: Thanks so much, Alenka. It was a pleasure.

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