About The Author
Sebastian Barry was born in Dublin in 1955. His novels and plays have won the Costa Book of the Year award, the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Prize, the Irish Book Awards Novel of the Year, the Independent Booksellers Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. He also had two consecutive novels, A Long Long Way (2005) and The Secret Scripture (2008), shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He lives in Wicklow with his wife and three children.
In his new novel, Days Without End, winner of the 2016 Costa Novel Award, having signed up for the US army in the 1850s aged barely 17, Thomas McNulty and his brother-in-arms, John Cole, go on to fight in the Indian wars and, ultimately, the Civil War. Orphans of terrible hardships themselves, they find these days to be vivid and alive, despite the horrors they both see and are complicit in. Their lives are further enriched and imperilled when a young Indian girl crosses their path, and the possibility of lasting happiness emerges.
Below, exclusively for Foyles, Sebastian talks about finding the 'birdsong' of the story, gaining a new perspective on early American history and how stories feed us and give us our dimension.
Author photo © The Irish Times
Questions & Answers
While your fiction has been set in America before (On Canaan’s Side), Days Without End seems more of a departure, particularly with the step back in time to the mid-19th century. What is your connection to and interest in America and that period?
When I was a child I was told I had a great uncle who was in the US cavalry and fought at the Indian Wars. It was of great interest to me that a version of my DNA was involved in such a shocking and terrible dispossession, and in later years I have wondered if it was possible for a person contemporary to that time to have any inkling of the irony of an Irish person, supposedly of a onetime conquered nation, involving himself in the conquest of another people not unlike his own.
How did you go about researching the novel and is that stage a big part of your writing process generally?
I read for about a year -- I try to limit it to that. There are thousands of books about the Indian Wars, the American Civil War, etc etc. You can get very lost in the maze. But I concentrated as much as possible on old first-hand accounts, of pioneers who had experienced capture by Indian nations and later wrote accounts of their experiences, narratives left behind by people who had made the journey west, life stories of others who had merely lived vivid but ordinary lives in the America of the 1850s and thereabouts, and the scant but extraordinary testimony of Native peoples themselves. I tried to research the Irish involvement in all these matters, especially their involvement in the Civil War, which was pivotal to the experience of new emigrants from Ireland.
For those readers new to your fiction, can you tell us a little about the McNulty family who we see in many of your novels – The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, The Secret Scripture and The Temporary Gentleman – and how the character of Thomas McNulty in this new work fits into their history?
Thomas would be the uncle or great uncle of Jack, Eneas and Tom McNulty, who all figure in other books. In The Temporary Gentleman, all Jack knows, or thinks he knows, is that his great uncle Thomas was killed by Comanches. (This turns out not to be true!) The McNultys are a hugely altered version of my mother's own relations in Sligo -- they are patched and stitched together out of old scraps of things she spoke of when I was a child -- I even met a fair number of them, as they were long-lived people. They had their secrets like all families, and any fool could map the fall-out of those secrets even into very late generations.
The voice and the language of Days Without End is incredible on the page, so soulful and almost musical. Is your prose something you work on and style for each book in a conscious way, or is it how the writing comes? Do you think that has changed for you over the years?
This book felt very different to me. It is possible to become a prisoner of your own style, especially after nearly forty years of work. I had the sense throughout the book that I was not writing so much as just simply telling the story, swiftly as possible, cutting through as though if you lingered you might get a bullet or even an arrow in your breast -- listening intently to Thomas's voice. It was a great joy to do and when I was finished I was terribly worried that there would just be a silence, an absence, as if the words might start to fade and disappear. I was immensely surprised to discover that the book seemed vivid and of value to the first readers, and relieved.#
Do you write in a linear way, starting at the beginning and working through until you have a full manuscript, or do you edit and draft different chapters along the way?
This book I wrote straight through, as I did A Long Long Way indeed, and The Secret Scripture. There was a sense of strange access with these books which I can't explain. The first chapter is always a struggle, trying to find the birdsong of the story as it were. The little tune of it. This time I scrapped the first chapter altogether after about nine months, and one evening I wrote that first sentence which is still there. Behind the sentence in some equally inexplicable way the rest of the book was lying -- like a country, like an old road peopled by old voices still peculiarly living.
The relationship between the two main characters in Days Without End is so beautifully drawn. I wondered how much you thought of this novel as a love story from the start, or if that emerged as you progressed?
As soon as the two boys met under a hedge in a deluge of rain, I knew they would spend their lives together. I didn't know how they would be together exactly and I didn't know how they would talk to each other but I sensed other things about them -- that the connection between them was powerful, delightful and enviable.
How were you able to write so vividly the extraordinary description of the buffalo hunt, and some of the battle scenes?
Francis Parkman wrote a great contemporary account of going west called The Oregon Trail. He is a great writer, truly worth a look. In that book he describes a buffalo hunt. It is very thrilling and well done. It was actually when I read that months before I started that I thought I might able to do the book -- something in the detail of a buffalo wanting to catch you off guard as you rode him down seemed so strangely true and wonderful, like a great painting representing life itself. It was like a signal given up the years. We lived like this once, it seemed to say, and we would like you to make this known! As for the battle scenes, like in A Long Long Way, I tried to acquaint myself with a few facts and then forget them, and just follow what unfolded before my eyes. I tell you, writing is a very strange business.
Has writing this novel given you a new perspective on early American history and how important was it for you to tell a small piece of that story?
It has utterly changed my view. It is extraordinary that we have this example of a kind of tragic exchange between peoples that no doubt characterises the deep histories of all places, times, and nations. I think of the ancient hunter gatherers of Ireland erased by new people maybe 4000 years ago -- but this is so recent, so documented. I think of course that America has it glories. But I don't think you can proceed to speak of them legitimately till you state how the country was founded, without bias or occlusion. On treachery, bloodshed, fratricide, betrayal and oftentimes sheer greed. On courage, humour, generosity and new and resilient philosophies too. But first, this calamity.
Finally, having been a professional writer for some years now, what do you think fiction can mean in the world today?
Sometimes you hear the phrase about a book, 'it's only a story.' But everything we value, everything that defines us, accuses us, praises us, condemns us, is also 'only a story.' Maybe the real phrase is 'There are only stories.' Ask any mathematician, scientist, politician, fisherman, dancer, painter, road-sweeper -- only stories feed us and give us our dimension.