Sebastian Barry fills in some of the background to his latest novel, which is reviewed here.
1. The Temporary Gentleman takes place mainly in Ireland and Africa. What drew you to Africa, and how did you research it? and am I right in thinking you are suggesting some similarities between the two places?
I read as many books as I could find, especially about The Goldcoast and its customs, memoirs of District Officers etc. But my main research was done as a child, lying beside my grandfather in his bed (the doss, as he called it) while he recounted things about his days in Africa – so that it became as vividly present and real to me as the old Victorian suburb of Monkstown where we lived, maybe more so. The Great Escape, the raft of my grandfather’s bed.
2. I know you have always drawn on your own family history in your plays and novels. So where do Jack McNulty and his family fit in?
Jack is a version of this grandfather, but changed not so much by intention, but by time and other alterers, not to mention the fact that I am now older than he was when I was born. So hopefully I have a better understanding of his curious, sometimes dark, and oftentimes delightful nature. Fictionally, he is the brother of Eneas McNulty and the brother-in-law of Roseanne McNulty and therefore Tom’s brother too. Maggie might be a shadow-version of my late mother, Ursula her sister who later died in tragic circumstances in England. Mai Kirwan was always entirely fictional, I do believe, even when she was flesh and blood and alive in Sligo! The real person died before I was born.
3. The Temporary Gentleman is both tragic and beautiful. I suppose the same could be said of most if not all of your work. How do you see the relation between beauty and tragedy?
They seem to me both just different names for the same strange sea, depending on what shore you are standing on, depending on what eyes you are looking through.
Sebastian Barry, The Temporary Gentleman (Faber, London, 2014). 978-0571276950, 270 pp., hardback.