From rural Ireland to downtown Toronto, Colin Barrett’s telling stories are beginning to reflect his life
Given the close association with Ireland in his writing, it may come as a surprise to many readers to learn that Colin Barrett hails originally from Canada. The author, who spent most of his life in Ireland, is in fact a dual Irish and Canadian citizen, born in Fort McMurray, Alberta. “My earliest memories are of being here,” says Barrett, who has lived in Toronto since the start of 2017.
After spending a few early years in Toronto when he was a child (he recalls going to daycare in the city), Barrett’s parents, who moved around a lot when he was young, decamped for Ireland, where Barrett grew up on the west coast, in County Mayo. “In a village really, not even a town,” he says. “Just a scattering of houses, mostly farmhouses.” The author’s life in rural Ireland clearly informs his fiction, including the stories collected in his 2014 debut, “Young Skins,” and those in his followup, “Homesickness,” newly published in Canada by McClelland & Stewart.
The earlier collection is one of the most lauded debuts in recent memory, winning the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Guardian First Book Award, and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. The author was named one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 honourees for 2015, and “Calm With Horses,” the centrepiece story in “Young Skins,” was adapted into a critically acclaimed film that premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.
All of which makes releasing the sophomore collection something of a daunting prospect. “You pick up this condition among writers: Am I a real writer? Do I really believe the things I write? Do I really feel the things I write? Will I have enough stuff to write about?” Barrett says. “My fear was always am I going to run out? The first time I ever wrote a story that I was happy with after years of trying and failing, I was like, ‘Well, I’m happy with this one, but can I do this again?’”
As it turns out, the key to unlocking Barrett’s fictional wellspring was a recognition that his experience and understanding of his own small circle on the west coast of Ireland represented a legitimate source of fictional inspiration. “I didn’t start writing competent fiction until I turned toward my own experiences,” Barrett says. “They are set among characters and in places very much like I grew up in. Once I took that as my subject matter, my work became alive in a way it wasn’t before.”
That said, it is incumbent upon any critic to refrain from making one-to-one comparisons between authors and their fictional creations — an impulse that, notwithstanding any reality-based inspiration in his stories, Barrett supports unreservedly. “Nothing is more dispiriting to me than the idea of having to write autobiography. It’s only interesting because I can pull it through the prism of fiction.”
One of the benefits that resulted from Barrett’s realization about the fictional possibilities of his rural Irish surroundings was a freedom to depict marginal or uneducated characters in a way that did not deny them access to a kind of lyrical presentation or language. This is apparent in “Homesickness” through stories like “The 10,” about a young man who was a football star in his childhood and now faces incipient coming-of-age angst, including the probable breakup of his first serious relationship. Or “The Alps,” arguably the collection’s best story, about a group of local toughs who encounter a stranger in a pub wielding an imitation Japanese Kanata sword.
In Barrett’s hands, these characters are allowed a full range of complex emotions and a metaphorical treatment that is almost poetic in its execution. “I didn’t want to constrain the language just because their lives are constrained,” Barrett says. “I wanted to take more humble characters as literary subjects. I thought you could write about them in as sophisticated a style as anybody else.”
Readers of “Young Skins” will find much that is familiar in “Homesickness”: rough but vulnerable characters prone to sudden outbursts of violence; plenty of earthy humour; and lots and lots of drinking. But the new book is also more expansive than the previous collection, which restricted its focus to a group of interconnected characters in a rural Irish community. “Homesickness” widens its field to include one story set in Canada, and a pair of stories about writers.
“I think it’s only fair that if you write about the frustrations and insecurities of small-town criminals or guys who work at petrol stations that you occasionally turn the lens on writers,” he says. “And again try to write honestly but with a little bit of a sense of humour about the weirdness of the writing life.”
For Barrett, that weirdness includes a stint during COVID-19 lockdowns during which he basically found himself in the role of a stay-at-home father to his two young children while his wife, a doctor, went to work. “I went back to parenting full-time more or less,” he says. “But it was surprising: once we got used to the strangeness of it, I was able to get back to a routine. I got more writing done than I thought I was going to.”
That new work includes not just the stories in “Homesickness,” but a novel Barrett submitted simultaneously, but which his editors decided to hold off on since the stories in the new volume, many of which had appeared previously in various journals and magazines, were closer to being ready for publication. “I always thought the second book would be a novel,” Barrett says. “I was very happy that my publishers in the UK and the U.S. and here in Canada as well were very enthusiastic and bought the second collection and wanted to do it.”
It’s an enthusiasm that readers, both those familiar with “Young Skins” and those new to Barrett’s writing, are sure to share.
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