22 years later, author Kevin Barry found the key to a novel he’d long meant to write

In the woods near his home in Ireland, author Kevin Barry found the answer to something that had nagged him for more than 20 years.

“One day, late in the pandemic, I was walking in the mountains in County Sligo where I live now,” says Barry via Zoom. “I just saw it in my mind’s eye: A man and a woman riding double on a horse. And I thought, if they’re riding double, they need to get away from someplace quick. What’s their problem? Who are they? And that’s just the way they came.”

Into the west

For Barry, the acclaimed author of “Night Boat to Tangier,” “Beatlebone” and “City of Bohane,” the Irish woods felt like the landscape of an American Western, and the imagined couple sharing a horse unlocked a story he’d been wanting to tell for more than two decades. 

In his just-published new book, “The Heart in Winter,” set in the rough boomtown of 1891-era Butte, Montana, an Irish ne’er-do-well and the mail-order bride of a wealthy miner set off a powerful chain of events.

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“It felt like I was paying back a debt to my younger self because it was the first novel I attempted when I was in my late 20s,” says Barry, who recalls another fortuitous day out in nature. 

“In 1999, I was a freelance journalist in Cork, Ireland, with a notion that I would write a novel. I wasn’t getting very far with it, but I was walking one day in the mountains in County Cork, and I found these abandoned copper mines and started to research the history of them. I learned that all the miners had moved en masse to Butte, Montana in the 1880s and ‘90s. And I thought, Wow, this is a Western — but it’s got Cork accents.”

“I could do this,” he remembers thinking. “I went to Butte in October ‘99 … and I got lots of great material for a novel, lots of stuff about the bars and the brothels and the opium parlors, all that great 1890s texture and detail.”

Barry says he tried to write the novel but couldn’t make it work at the time.

“I didn’t have the characters. They took another 22 years to appear,” he says, adding that it took his vision of the fugitive couple, Polly and Tom, to reveal the story. “I realized, ‘Wow, I have a way into my Butte, Montana novel now. It can be a smaller story than I envisaged when I first tried to write it.”

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“What was nice was to go back to this idea after so many years was to realize that even at 29 I was on the right track, because it’s a great world for me,” says Barry, describing Butte’s transformation from mining camp to growing city and “incredibly multicultural place” full of Cornish, Chinese, Finnish and Irish immigrants in just a decade or so. “There were miners in Europe — around the world — they all made for Butte, Montana. The word was out. There was a huge rush on copper for the electrification of the United States, so they were making good money for the time, really good money.

“Irish people have always been economic migrants. We’ve always been economic refugees. We almost invented it,” says Barry. “People kind of know about the Irish miners that went to Butte, but they don’t know the extent of it, that a third of the city was Irish by the 1890s. 

“It’s very interesting to watch the way the Irish community organizes itself when it goes abroad like that,” he says. “The first thing they did was they opened about 38 pubs, OK?” 

From there, says Barry, the Irish took over law enforcement and the political apparatus. “They made it a real little Irish machine town. It was like a little Boston or a little Chicago.”

And all of that made for a better book, he says.

“Having a diaspora, having a history of migration in your country, it’s a great thing for a writer,” says Barry. “It opens up the world to you. You can put your characters pretty much anywhere in a believable way because we’ve always gone off, we’ve always traveled.

SEE ALSO: 5 Westerns that nearly killed the movie genre

Under the influence 

While the novel has some of the hallmarks of a classic Western, it’s also got the mucky realism of HBO’s “Deadwood,” the hardboiled romance of a film noir and the unlikely fashion sense of a certain revisionist Western. 

“I’ve always been as a fiction writer as influenced by film and television as I am by books,” says Barry. “I got into the 1970s kind of revisionist American westerns, the kind of “McCabe & Mrs Miller” type films, “Missouri Breaks,” and those great Terrence Malick neo-Westerns. “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven,” especially, were big influences on the voices in “The Heart in Winter.”

“There’s a special nod to Warren Beatty’s fur coat in ‘McCabe & Mrs Miller,’” says Barry, referring to a distinctive bit of outerwear that Tom and Polly wind up with at one point. “It’s a blonde fur coat. It’s the coolest fur coat a dude has ever worn.”

Beyond his love of film, Barry says he was aware of the novels of other writers including Charles Portis, Barry Hannah and, of course, Cormac McCarthy, whose work he consulted early in the writing while puzzling over a question about horses.

“Early on, I came to a scene with a horse and I got nervous because I don’t know very much about horses, so I said I better consult Mr. McCarthy on this. And I went to my shelves, and I picked down the first Cormac McCarthy I found, I think it was ‘All the Pretty Horses,’ and just opened and read about three pages at random. And I thought, Oh, [heck], he knows a lot about horses.”

Ultimately, Barry came up with a solution that worked for his dodgy daydreaming character, Tom. “What if Tom Roarke knows nothing about horses? What if he’s completely winging it on the horses front? Then I won’t have to do any research,” he says with a laugh. “You kind of solve your problems as a fiction writer as you go along.”

That’s not to say Barry avoided the trappings of genre writing; he embraced them. “When you’re writing a Western, and when you find yourself typing sentences like, ‘The sheriff said…’ you just have to go with it. You just have to commit. 

“I love to bring in genre tropes — the noir tropes and the classic Western tropes of posses and ‘lighting out for fresh territory,‘” he says. “When these genres collide, you can make sparks.”

An intimate epic

Even with its wide range of influences and the vast landscape the characters move across, the novel packs a lot of great writing into a remarkably quick read.

That’s not by accident.

“As a reader, I love the 200-page novel. I love that novel where I can go to my couch and go, right, this is Novel Night. I’m going to switch off all my devices and I’m just gonna read this book in a sitting,” he says. “It’s a lovely feeling to treat it like watching a great movie, you know? Make it a really intense experience. So my ambition is to write the three-hour novel where the reader could sit down and just fall into this world completely. 

“What I’m trying to do a lot of the time is get away from a lot of the traditional furniture of a novel and shortcut it and give these short, really intense scenes,” he says. “I like the short intense bang of it.”

SEE ALSO: C. Pam Zhang discusses her Booker Prize-nominated Western novel, ‘How Much of These Hills Is Gold’

“Where we are now, as readers in history, I think it makes a lot of sense to go for that much more short and intense experience,” he says. “People have a lot of pressure on their time.”

So Barry says that if someone is going to write a longer book, he’s looking for something really good.

“I don’t read an awful lot of historical fiction, but I go back to the best, which is Hilary Mantel,” says Barry, referring to Mantel’s towering “Wolf Hall” trilogy. “It never has the sense of stuff that happened hundreds of years ago. It feels so fresh. The intrigue feels like this could have been going on in the corridors of power last week, and she knows how to hide her research. There isn’t a sense on the page of all this research bogging it down.”

As well as historical elements, Barry researched how people spoke in the era, and the novel crackles with often salty language. 

“There are genuine Cornish slang words from the time,” says Barry, offering examples best not repeated here. “I was trying to keep a kind of freshness in the language … to make it feel like this wasn’t antique.” 

Sounds like a book

For those who enjoy audiobooks, Barry is a novelist you should get to know. As much as his work pops on the page, there’s something incredibly compelling about his audiobook narration. You’re in the presence of a true storyteller.

“I’m kind of a frustrated ham actor. I like to try the accents and all this. I was happy with most of my accents of this performance,” he says, before joking that one of his accents wasn’t up to his high standards: “My Cornish from the southwest of England? I think it’s a little bit of a hate crime against the Cornish people.”

SEE ALSO: In a pandemic-scarred Old West, ‘Outlawed’ finds women in peril and fighting back

But he recognizes the growth of audiobooks even at signings of physical books. “I had a launch event in Dublin recently at a great bookstore called Hodges Figgis,” he says. “And as I was signing books, I would say at least 20 percent of people said, ‘Oh, I really enjoyed hearing your last one’ or ‘I really enjoyed listening to your last one.’ It’s really exploded in recent times; that’s kind of great. I know I rehearse a lot for them.”

Barry says reading the work out loud has always been part of his process.

“Once I have a rough first draft, I’m kind of doing the voices and hearing it on the air, because I find it’s a shortcut to finding where the real narrative thread is — and you can also hear your evasions where you’re getting away from the real story much easier than you’ll see them on the on the laptop screen or in your notebook,” he says. “When you hear it aloud, you really kind of get to get to the quick of it. It’s always been an important part of my writing process. So it’s fun then at the end of it to go and do the readings and to do the audiobook and all that.” 

Living in the city

While the Irish writer’s imagination has been in snowy Montana over the past few years, Barry and his wife have been nearer to the sunny locale of readers of this paper.

“The last couple of winters I’ve been in Los Angeles in Silver Lake escaping the Irish winter,” says Barry, who has also spent time in Santa Barbara and Boston over the years. “I really like the way Silver Lake is pretty walkable by Los Angeles standards. You can kind of get by on an Uber on a short visit of a couple of months.”

So where did he walk in Los Angeles? It’s not hard to guess. “A couple of great stores, like Skylight Books in Los Feliz, Stories down in Echo Park. Fantastic stores, great stores.

“What I love about coming to the U.S.,” says Barry. “I love the independent bookstores. I love that sense of community that they foster and that they really, really work hard in a business that has a low kind of profit margin to keep it going,” says Barry, citing the readings, events and book clubs run out of local shops. 

“It’s such valuable work to keep books in a central place in our culture, which you know that’s a battle that we’re in, and there’s so much credit due to the indie bookstores for doing that.”

And as for Barry, he’s doing his best to make sure that both he and the reader are having a good time.

“For me, it’s a simple equation: I need to be having a good time at my desk or our beloved reader down the road isn’t going to be having a good time,” he says. “Books should be fun. We invented books to get us through the long, dark nights, you know?” 

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