I’ll say this up front: if you ever get a chance to see Sebastian Barry reading from one of his books, grab it with both hands. It’s something you’ll never forget. He did two readings in this session, one from A Long Long Way, the other from his most recent, On Canaan’s Side. For each he rose from his chair and stepped to the front of the stage at the Sydney Theatre and gave what could be only described as a performance. It was like watching a play, with one man performing both narration and the voices of his characters, singing a few lines of song into the bargain.
I was so mesmerised by not just his readings but by his poetic answers and ways of telling anecdotes about his writing that it’s impossible to do them justice in this blog. But he was charming in a way that perhaps only the Irish can be, describing growing up in County Wicklow with Aunt Annie, and the inspiration for his writing, which uses family members like her to create characters. He said he ‘wanted to make a box of Aunt Annie’, as it seems he does with so many other people, something to preserve their life, or re-create it in fiction. Another poignant example of this was his character in The Secret Scriptures (see my review), which was a heart-wrenching story about a family member who had been sectioned and lived decades in a mental institution. He wanted, he said, to give her back her life in a way.
When you are past fifty years old, you can hear the waterfall toward which we all head, he said. You’ve seen your grandparents disappear over it, perhaps your parents, and the noise gets louder and louder and it’s up to you to do something. ‘How to live’ is why he writes. He wanted to leave something for his children that they might take in rather than the normal parental advice which would, of course, be ignored!
In talking about A Long Long Way and the impacts of war he described how he keeps a letter from a Vietnam veteran in his copy from which he read, in which that man wrote that the war he described in the book was that man’s war. If we knew what we were sending our children off to when we send them to war we just wouldn’t do it. History infects generations, Barry said, a theme which Kate Grenville had talked about earlier in the day as well.
I’ll wrap this up with one of his lovely thoughts, that ‘readers were the doctors of writers’. If that’s the case, then Barry is in ship-shape condition, and long may this be so.