With the backdrop of rural Ireland supporting his cast of estranged characters, Rebekah Rennick speaks to author of Young Skins Colin Barrett about the art of the short story and the lives of those who’ve inspired his writing thus far.
“If you know the type, you know the type.” chimes Colin Barrett, author of short story collection Young Skins and recent winner of the Frank O’ Connor award. The ‘type’ he refers to are those who haunt rural towns across Ireland; young, directionless pups stalking darkened pubs, estranged friends dealing with unforeseen circumstances and bouncers ruling the kingdom that is their resident, murky nightclub. These are the characters that have inspired and moulded Barrett’s collection of stories, set in the fictional yet frighteningly accurate small town of Glenbeigh.
Barrett’s upbringing in Mayo allows him to expose the true wayward lives of those inhabiting our rural towns, those who for the most part are oblivious to life outside their local surroundings. While such lives have been explored more so in the comedic sense with ‘Hardy Bucks’, Barrett brings alive the grim reality of this existence. “I wanted to avoid ‘judgment’ writing – that is, to go in with a premeditated idea of condemning/ sentimentalizing a subject, society or way of life. I tried to present the world and characters ‘as is,’ and not succumb to the temptation to explain or justify.” He explains “I just wanted to stick as close to the skins of the characters. To the reader, perhaps, their lives look bleaker but it’s in that very gap that fiction promotes engagement and empathy.”
While he completed an MA in Creative Writing in UCD in 2009, Barrett’s penchant for short story writing is clearly evident “A short story to me is halfway between a drawing” he says “Every bit of it glows at the same luminance. A poem is the same – it’s a distillation of language and form into its best, most efficacious expression. A short story requires an attempt at poetry’s rigor and scrutiny of language, and an awareness of the plasticity and possibility of form.”
Delving into the lives of his characters in Young Skins exposes the traits which somewhat mark us all brought up in post-boom Ireland; a dark humour that surpasses many other emotive thoughts “It’s an Irish trait for sure, though not one exclusive to us at all. Most of the characters were infused with that sensibility without my consciously having to work on it.”
While he describes both male and female characters, he notes that “In the book, most of the women have responsibilities of some kind – whether a job or family- and the men end up with too much time on their hands, with an attendant propensity for killing that time in the most destructive ways possible. “A truth that is echoed sharply in a number of his exceptional yet harrowing stories.
Following the success of the Frank O’ Connor award, Barrett recognizes the change in his life, from “living off the odd arts grant/the dole/ part time evening jobs” to becoming an acclaimed Irish writer; yet he remains true to himself and evades the pressure that may come with such an accolade “I remind myself that no one really cares either way, so just get it done. Get it on the page. It’s crap, but get it on the page, and take it from there. Same as it ever was.”