Episode 133: Tell Meaningful Stories — Interview with Sebastian Barry

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Podcast

Hey there word nerds!

Today I have the pleasure of interview award-winning author Sebastian Barry, about his latest book Days Without End.

Sebastian Barry is the author of seven novels, including A Long Long Way and The Secret Scripture (now a major motion picture starring Rooney Mara and Vanessa Redgrave). He has won the Costa Book of the Year Award, the Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year Award, and the Walter Scott Prize. His work has twice been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. He lives in Ireland.

Days Without End is a historical novel set during the Indian Wars in the American west, and the Civil War, about two young men who are brothers in arms and also lovers. It’s a story where the gay relationship is the only consistently joyful thing against the otherwise bleak background of war, genocide and the American empire.

As with many books recommended at DIY MFA, the links in this post for Days Without End are Amazon affiliate links. This means if you choose to make a purchase via these links, DIY MFA will earn a small commission at no cost to you. Thanks for supporting DIY MFA!

In this episode we discuss:

  • Recognizing how your real life becomes infused in your best writing.
  • Shaking off the self-consciousness of writing.
  • Being aware of what’s not in the books you’re reading and striving to create what’s not “out there.”

Plus, Sebastian’s #1 tip for writers.

About the Author

Sebastian Barry is the author of seven novels, including A Long Long Way and The Secret Scripture (now a major motion picture starring Rooney Mara and Vanessa Redgrave). He has won the Costa Book of the Year Award, the Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year Award, and the Walter Scott Prize. His work has twice been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. He lives in Ireland.

Days Without End

DaysWithoutEndCoverDays without End is inspired by and dedicated to Barry’s son, who came out as gay recently and on whose behalf Barry advocated for LGBT marriage rights during the Irish marriage referendum. The letter he wrote for the Irish Times on the subject went viral, and was read aloud in the Irish and Australian parliaments. The character of John Cole is a portrait of his son Toby’s boyfriend, Jack.

Writing gay love was new territory for Barry, and part of his historical research for the novel was looking into the (elusive) history of gay life during that time through primary sources. There is a seriously researched and utterly moving history of proto drag on the frontier. John and Thomas, the main characters, first find work crossdressing, working as dance partners in saloons for lonely miners in frontier towns. Barry takes on the psychology of drag from Thomas’ point of view—what his costumes mean to his identity, which is split between his occupation as a soldier and the secret family he has built with John.

Days Without End shifts the narrow expectations of what “masculine” literature can be and do. The book is in dialogue with and in some ways a rebuttal to Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain, in that the gay relationship is the only consistently joyful thing in otherwise bleak novel about genocide and American empire, rather than the source of anguish and frustration it is in Proulx’s novel. With John and Thomas, Barry wanted to portray the joy that he observes in his son’s relationship with his boyfriend, rather than shame and persecution.

In Days Without End, Thomas McNulty, a “wren-sized” young man barely seventeen and an Irish refugee of the Great Famine, signs up for the U.S. Army in the 1850s with his brother in arms John Cole. The two friends are sent to fight in the Indian Wars against the Sioux and Yurok, and ultimately in the Civil War. Fans of Sebastian Barry’s subtly interconnected novels will rediscover the McNulty family—based on members of Barry’s own family—in the New World, as Thomas McNulty travels from the contested frontier plains of Wyoming, to the Union battlegrounds of Virginia and Maryland, to the starving remains of scorched earth towns in Tennessee.

Days Without End is a powerful literary portrait of a time when Americans were pitted against Americans in bloody struggles fought to define the borders and identity of the nation. Barry writes of this period as it was experienced by common soldiers: men who did not determine or even necessarily understand the wars they fought, but who fought anyway, merely to survive them. Not just a war novel, Days Without End is also a poignant love story, about two men and the unlikely family they form with a young Sioux girl, Winona.

Link to Episode 133

(Right-click to download.)

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Until next week, keep writing and keep being awesome!

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