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Man Booker Prize 2011 longlist: Sebastian Barry interview

Man Booker Prize 2011 longlist: Sebastian Barry interview

MBP: Congratulations on being longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2011. In 2008 you told us that you couldn't believe it in 2005 (A Long Long Way), and couldn't believe it in 2008 (The Secret Scripture). Were you any less surprised this time with your third nomination?

SB: My all-seeing all-knowing agent recommended that I prepare to be 'philosophical' on the Tuesday, so I did. Not anyone's strong suit, I should imagine, 'philosophical'. I went over to the old cottage of my great aunt, not far from where I lived, and walked the leafy lane with my dogs. Being philosophical... So when my editor rang and said in his quiet voice 'good news', yes, I was overwhelmed again, and even thought in a wild moment he might be teasing.

MBP: In On Canaan's Side you return to the Dunnes family, members of whom appeared in earlier novels Annie Dunne and A Long, Long Way and in the play The Steward of Christendom. Was it easy to pick up the thread of this family?

SB: Thread is a good word, because my great aunt Annie Dunne was an inveterate sower of socks and knitter of ganseys. They never really leave me, even - especially - in dreams. It was some kind of privilege to lift the thread and follow Lilly into the great labyrinth of America, in the hopes of finding her there, and though only in the perhaps useless gesture of mere imagination, bring her home, or embrace her at least in her new home place.

MBP: On Canaan's Side explores the move that so many Irish people made from Ireland to America in the early 20th century. How did you research this epoch of Irish/American history and did you draw on any stories you knew about?

SB: The principle yeast for the book was something I was only told about only in the last few years, that a great-uncle, a further brother of Annie, Willie and Lilly, was given an IRA death sentence in Ireland, fled to America with his sister and her fiancee, and was gunned down in a street in Chicago... Truly terrifying, and subsequently hidden in family lore. I have a little obsession also with the Ohio Canal, and have some books gathered over the years, and took a great interest in Cleveland, and the Hamptons with its old potato farms, the Native American currency of Wampum... I have travelled, lived and worked in America also, as have many of my forebears (one of my grandfathers was a US citizen). I drew on whatever I could, especially that strange, oftentimes sore love-affair many Irish people have with the very idea of America as a place of refuge -- their Canaan.

MBP: Once again you've created an extraordinary female protagonist in Lilly. How did her character develop while you were writing the novel or did you have quite a clear idea of who she was at the outset?

SB: I had very little idea, beyond the fact that I had met the 'real' woman for five minutes when I was a little boy. She stood on the street outside our house, on a brief visit back to Ireland, shining in her Yankee dress so unlike anything in the sixties in Ireland, her hair immaculate, and so full of life and energy she was almost dancing where she stood. That fleeting moment was my guide. I only met her then more fully in her telling of her story in the book...

MBP: The Secret Scripture was Man Booker shortlisted, Costa Prize winning and so on, how hard was it to pick up again and start on a new novel after the huge success of that last novel?

SB: To be honest there was something daunting in it, and I was therefore somewhat distracted in base camp, but Lilly was my guide up the mountain, my agent and editors were staunch - and soon the excitement of the journey and the difficulties of the climb erased such fears. And anyway fear is not the worst salt.

MBP: What are you working on next?

SB: I have an eye on another person hiding in my DNA, or rather, I suspect he has an eye on me, and I am hoping it's because he finally wants his story told...

Sebastian Barry, shot for The Man Booker Prize
Sebastian Barry, shot for The Man Booker Prize