With Old God’s Time longlisted for the Booker Prize 2023, we spoke to Sebastian Barry about the importance of dreaming, and why Irish writers do what they do

Read interviews with all of the longlisted authors here

Publication date and time: Published

How does it feel to be nominated for the Booker Prize, and what would winning the prize mean to you?

The first time I was nominated I was 50 – my Faber publicist rang me when I was driving and I nearly crashed the car. Now I am 68 and when my Faber editor rang me, well, I shed a few tears. It’s a very strange experience, in a way, and I can’t imagine getting used to it.

This is your fifth Booker nomination, which means you have now joined a select group of writers who have been nominated for the prize at least five times. How does it feel to be part of this distinguished cohort? 

I don’t know how I feel about it exactly. I mean, it is most excellent company, but I am still parsing what it means. But in truth I am very proud of it – secretly.

There are four Irish authors on this year’s Booker longlist – more than any previous year – and some commentators have argued that there could have been even more. Ireland obviously has a rich literary tradition, but there seems to be a huge amount of exciting fiction coming out of the country just now - why do you think that might be?

As laureate for Irish Fiction I did 18 podcasts with fellow Irish writers in an attempt to find out what it is we do, and why. Nobody knew. It was great fun finding that out though. I risked the cliche, Golden Age of Irish Writing, as a tagline. Also a golden age of readers, of course. Ireland has a tangled wool basket of history, and indeed contemporary life, and we try to unpick the knots.

Sebastian Barry

My prayer was that, by being forensic in my descriptions when necessary, readers might elect to take on some of those images and memories, as an act of solidarity – a witchy magic, an act of sympathetic empathy

How long did it take to write Old God’s Time, and what does your writing process look like? Do you type or write in longhand? Are there multiple drafts or sudden bursts of activity? Is there a significant amount of research and plotting before you begin writing?

I try to set aside a year just for reading and dreaming – that peculiar dreaming of writers. Then a year to write the book, and then a year to reconsider, edit, make raids on the text as it were. Like Billy the Kid. Pat Garrett would be the doubts and worries (quite important, if dangerous). I wait for the book essentially and once it starts, I try to give it its head, as judiciously as possible, hoping it won’t go and gallop off a cliff.

Where do you write? What does your working space look like?

I write in what was once the rector’s study in an old rectory. It was also called the Bee Room, because gear for bee-keeping was kept in there. It has a good small stove, bookcases made by a genius carpenter I know (who accidentally gave me the title for this book), and since we came here it was been twice painted by me on the stern orders of my wife, Ali. The curtains have pineapples on them for some reason. An old post-office desk has seen everything written on it since 1986. Outside is Ali’s brilliant planting in the garden, but I face the wall to work.

Old God’s Time features unflinching descriptions of abuse at the hands of the Catholic Church. Why was it important to include this level of detail, rather than averting the reader’s gaze?

My understanding of abuse is, the survivor carries terrible imagery which is so hard to erase, and even harder to suppress. My prayer was that, by being forensic in my descriptions when necessary, readers might elect to take on some of those images and memories, as an act of solidarity – a witchy magic, an act of sympathetic empathy. Tom Kettle the character expects nothing from anyone of course, which is part of what I admired about him. I have been amazed and gladdened by readers’ courage and generosity in this matter.

Old God's Time by Sebastian Barry

Suffering and trauma – personal and collective – are often evident in your writing. What draws you to write about darker themes, and the darker side of Ireland’s history? 

It is what seems to sit in the box of things from which I draw. It is a bit of a mystery even to me. It is where I paint, what I paint, the colours available to me. Whatever part of the brain contains all the synapses of stories and the desire to tell them, is full of these matters. But still it gives me great joy to write; as if in speaking, in telling, like a child who has been told to say nothing, I gain my own little share of freedom.

As the novel’s protagonist, Tom Kettle, reflects on a lifetime of memories, the narrative becomes almost dream-like, leaving the reader questioning Tom’s reality. Did you purposefully want readers to query Tom’s truth and is it more interesting, as a novelist, to centre a story around an unreliable narrator?

He is reliable in the sense that he is actually experiencing what is being described (by me, in the third person). I felt my job was to be his witness and to see and hear what he was seeing and hearing, and to take it down faithfully, and not butt in. He is not so reliable on some matters because he doesn’t remember them properly or his brain has altered them. There is a moment when he seems to lie to his superior officer. But even then, maybe not. Tom is a person under enormous stress. After the army he was diagnosed as suffering from PTSD and that was only the start of his troubles. But Tom loves life. He has loved his wife June and his babies. He has put his faith in existence, but his reality is very unstable. I felt it would be discourteous to diagnose him, but he isn’t currently in perfect mental health. But he is trying, he is trying to breast the waves. I was moreover interested to see him described as an Irish Job.

Which book or books are you reading at the moment?

I am reading a collection of early Paris Review interviews with writers, which contains the interview with Bob Gottlieb, the fabled editor, who died recently and who became a touchstone for me, miraculously, in the last few years. Everyone who knew him and worked with him will miss him dreadfully, his wonderfully forensic acumen and sheer personality. I am also reading Nick Laird’s new book, Up Late, which contains the famous elegy to his father (my own father died last year).

Do you have a favourite Booker-winning or Booker-shortlisted novel and, if so, why?

I so admired The God of Small Things when I read it some years ago. And am still ‘reading’ Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day years after I closed the actual book, if you follow me.  

What are you working on next?

I am trying to inch closer to a new book, I sense it pecking away at the ground nearby, and I am trying not to scare it out of the garden.

Sebastian Barry