Sebastian Barry in Conversation with Joseph O’Connor

Laureate for Irish fiction, Sebastian Barry, visited UL last Thursday. He spoke in conversation with head of Creative Writing MA and bestselling author, Joseph O’Connor, at the Irish World Academy of Music & Dance.

The evening involved a reading from Barry’s novel, Days Without End; a historical book full of lyrical language that won the Costa Book of the Year award and was inspired in many ways by his Grandfather. This reading was an intense theatrical performance as he brought the words to life for the audience.

Sebastian Barry has written many novels with the powerful first-person voice, including The Secret Scripture. In adapting or finding a strong voice, he spoke of the importance of listening to the stories of those around us, and noticing how one story can often be told with different perceptions; this divides character.

Barry and O’Connor spoke about how their personal lives can inform but also disturb their writing. According to Barry:

“The first rule of a novel is to be beautiful”.

He claimed knowing too much about something can often be dangerous or limiting with fiction writing as it’s important to also break beyond what we know. Both O’Connor and Barry spoke about the ‘impossible freedom of the theater’ and recalled on their own experiences visiting the Abbey Theater. Growing up, the theater was a dominant part of Barry’s life and thus impacted his style of writing largely. 

Alongside his writing, they discussed all he has done in the community since being appointed ‘Laureate for Irish Fiction’ by President Higgins. He spoke of his involvement with migrant communities, as his aim is to bring his stories and book clubs to those who can’t come to him.

He described his experience working with prisoners in Mountjoy, and those in mental hospitals in Dublin. The saddening heartfelt words he heard from one lady were:

“No one knows we’re here.”

This sparked conversation about refugees in direct provision centers, communities Barry aims to share his book clubs with. As discussed, it’s important to know and have access to marginal groups so even if we can’t make a difference, we can have a better understanding.

Melatu Uchu Okorie, author of ‘This Hostel Life’, spent seven years in direct provision and spoke of this on a podcast with Sebastian Barry.  Melatu’s book was chosen for UL’s 2019 ‘One Campus, One Book’ and she’ll be visiting the University this Wednesday the 13th of March.

The evening drew to a close pondering today’s young generation and how unique styles and themes are emerging from successful young authors. Both O’Connor and Barry agreed that young people in Ireland have set a high standard for first novels. The discussion ended on the concern that burdens many writers of financial struggle, on which Barry commented:

“How do artists survive their poverty? Mysteriously, mysteriously.”  

 

 

 

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Publishing Day at UL

 

Q&A Joseph O’Connor with Sarah Davis-Goff

On the 5th of December, a range of experienced publishers and agents visited the university to talk with the MA in Creative Writing program. This was an enjoyable end to the semester at UL.

The day kicked off in conversation with Alan Hayes, a successful independent publisher for Arlen House, Galway. Alan has published many authors such as UL’s Donal Ryan and Martin Dyar. Alan claims his journey into the publishing industry was a ‘fluke’ and all worked out by chance, as he developed his interest in the field after studying at NUI Galway. His main word of advice for the students was “sell your writing, not yourself“, as he emphasized the importance of the writing itself rather than publishing something for the sake of being noticed and seen. This was an important point that many often lose sight of nowadays, with bookshops promoting the biggest names and trends.

Editor and writer, Brian Langan, was in conversation with Donal Ryan. They both discussed the relationship they have as editor and writer, and the challenges they often face. They described this as a three-way relationship between writer, editor and the book. Langan explained how making edits and offering feedback can be quite challenging, so it’s important for the editor to always be passionate about the book. Both Ryan and Langan stressed the importance of keeping the audience/reader in mind when re-drafting a book.

 

Brian Langan

Marianne Gunn O’Connor is literary agent to writers such as Cecilia Ahern, Pat Mc Cabe, and Mike Mc Cormack. Marianne discussed the importance of failure in life, as one learns to succeed through their response to failure:

“Failure is the fuel, and success is the breaks.” 

If she sees something in a writer, she will stick with them. This was the case for Mike Mc Cormack who faced many obstacles and refusals when attempting to publish his work. Mc Cormack, whom was once described as a “disgracefully neglected writer“,  won the Dublin Literary prize and the Goldsmiths prize, for his novel Solar Bones. Marianne is “looking for a person, not a book” when choosing clients, as who she works with and their connection is important.

Closing the day, Sarah Davis Goff, from Tramp Press, was in discussion with Joseph O’Connor, head of the MA in Creative Writing program.  Tramp Press is an independent publishing agency run by Sarah Davis-Goff and Lisa Coen. Since being launched in 2014, they have published award winning authors, such as Mike Mc Cormack and Sarah Baume. She discussed the importance of the quality of writing when selecting a piece. Tramp is always looking for diversity and promoting gender equality. The Q&A was concluded with Sarah reading a piece from her upcoming novel, Last Ones Left Alive. 

 

Marianne Gunn O’Connor