DAY 1: Sebastian Barry – Dalkey Book Fest
It’s a humid yet blustery evening in Dalkey as we kick off the Dalkey Book Fest.
Light rain gently patters the marquee tent where we are warmly enclosed, awaiting the arrival of Sebastian Barry.
David McWilliams heartily welcomes everyone to the 7th Dalkey Book Festival.
The Westbury Hotel has provided gorgeous goodie bags for all attendees and there is some very glam stationary in there.
Andrea Catherwood and Sebastian have taken to stage to kick things off and a hush has descended across the marquee.
Andrea begins by revealing she’s a big fan of The Secret Scripture. “I’m not going to be impartial tonight!”, she quips.
Sebastian is the first author to win the Costa Book Award twice, a fact that is greeted by all with a round of applause. So we’re beginning this evening’s event with a reading from his latest book, Days Without End.
Before he begins, Sebastian remembers when this yard (where The Secret Garden is located) was a place for keeping hens.
“Does anyone remember the shop woman next door where you went to get a 4 penny bar of chocolate? Most desirous thing on earth when you’re 9 years old” Barry says.
Connecting our location and his latest work, he continues “I’m an exile from Dalkey. This man [in Days Without End] tells the story of his Ireland in the 1840s. Everyone he loves has been taken from him… he has been obliged to eject himself not only from his country but his future. When he gets to Canada he drifts down across the border through the states and finds the love of his life…”
In a very special moment, Sebastian begins the reading in song. It’s a must watch.
Sebastian Barry opening our events here in Dalkey with a passionate reading from his Costa Award winning book Days Without End, published by Faber.
What a start!
Posted by Dalkey Book Festival on Thursday, 15 June 2017
After that amazing reading, Andrea goes “I told you he was good!”
She launches into their chat by asking about the big themes in Days Without End.
“Did it worry you that you were trying to do this epic story in a way and yet make it deeply personal?”
A condition of mine and for most writers is worry” Sebastian replies.
“I would love to say in a way that the famine is in us… But there is a worrying fact about the famine…there were 4 million people left in Ireland.”
“It was distressing to read later work that people who weren’t touched by famine benefitted from this erasure of people”
Sebastian also speaks lyrically about the people who were taken away by the famine “who were said to have all the great songs” and the “great Shannon of Irishness made dry by the Famine.”
Sebastain then takes us through his process of creating this work:
“When I was working on the book at the beginning for the first year of writing I was trying faithfully to inhabit that world of famine and write it as I could…. great disasters, people are so traumatised by them, they don’t wish to speak of them… so few first person accounts of famine exist.”
But the process of Days Without End, almost came from divinity as Sebastian explains:
“I was doing an awful lot of writing… ‘The effort of laying out a corpse in Missouri sure took the proverbial cake’ – that’s Thomas, that’s the first sentence [of the book]. All authorial fear fled away and I had this number of months of just, of me as a human being, where the book you’re writing was being presented to you each morning as you hurried down to your work room… a sort of enchanted few months” Sebastian says, wonder still present in his voice.
Andrew replies ” You do hear the author saying God the character just spoke to me and I wrote it down, that’s brilliant…”
“It is brilliant!” Sebastian cheerfully tells her.
The famine is a huge presence in Days Without End, but Sebastian says “We think of ourselves as victims in history but there’s many ways to think about ourselves in history… freedom was noticing how much hunger and famine there was elsewhere. We don’t have a copyright on famine.”
In settling upon the name of the book, Sebastian says “It’s called Days Without End because these are his high days. These are the days he has loved. Despite everything he has gone through, he has had his victories and had his love.”
As Andrea asks about the love story between John and Thomas in the book, the sun begins splitting the skies above us and fills the marquee with light.
How much did your own eps infom this love?
Andrea asks how much of Sebastian’s own experiences informed the love between John and Thomas.
Sebastian opens up with searing honesty about where that inspiration and love came from.
“This book was dedicated to Toby [his son]. Merely by his being alive in the world gave me the book.”
When Toby was 16, Sebastian became very worried about his son and the obvious unhappiness he was experiencing. Unhappiness that Sebastian didn’t know the root of.
[It is] “Incredibly worrying. So worrying its almost obliterating. We live in Wicklow Hills and small number of young men, great tragedies, taking their lives… it’s so terrifying it will erase sleep from your rota of things to do in day.”
When Toby said, “Dad, I’m gay”, Sebastian said he replied “Thank God!”
” I was so relived to hear the cause.”
Toby’s journey and discovery of his sexuality, Sebastian says “The whole romance of having this son, as a father. There are many romances in the world but this was a huge one for me.”
Que 1oo hearts melting in The Secret Garden.
Later he adds “Maybe it’s cause I’m 62 in a few weeks i’m looking for the things that are important here.”
The great success of the book has “surprised me… makes me feel 7 instead of 70” Sebastian says.
In the Q&A with audience members, Sebastian recalls a wonderful time when he married his wife:
“When Ali and I got married in Texas, Ali was pregnant with the twins. We were different religions and we just couldn’t face the registry office and someone suggested Rome but I thought ‘That’s a bit intense for her’… so we went to Texas.
Everyone who was waiting for the judge to marry them was pregnant. But more so everyone there was… Texican? I remember asking an American person ‘Who are these people?’ And they said ‘Oh they’re the people who used to own Texas!’ and I went ‘Oh Irish people! No wonder I’m so comfortable!
So the judge started this wonderful spiel of a marriage and I was like ‘Can you slow down a bit? That’s brilliant!’ and he goes ‘My god I haven’t had english speaking people in here in 12 years!’
We had found this place, a little moral idea of history, the people who used to own Texas…” he recalls fondly, a smile across his face. It’s clear that the experiences of Sebastian’s life have informed so much of his work.
As we wind to a close and before Sebastian delivers a final reading, Andrea asks “What happens in your mind, what happens to them [the characters in Days Without End] next?
Sebastian reveals to dropped jaws, that there was a chapter that wasn’t included in the book.
“Usually when you finish a book, you stop when you don’t know anything else. But with this book, I had another chapter. I didn’t write it. But I knew what was going to happen next.”
Sebastian talked to his editor and told him this. He replied “Yes – but it’s not in this book!”
But will he tell us?
We wait with baited breath in the room as his lyrical mouth opens and rounds…
“Thomas loves to be dressed as a woman and become Tomesena and be happy and content. This is not in an era when there are words for any of these things…
I’m reluctant to tell you… But I did see Thomas and John sitting on their farm in Tennessee sewing up Winona’s wedding dress.”
And with that, the first event of this year’s Dalkey Book Fest closes. With a revelation and a reading.