Interview with author Sebastian Barry
author of On Canaan's Side,
to On the Bookcase!
Who is Lilly (Dunne) Bere?
Lilly is her own woman firstly. She’s the daughter of the Chief Superintendent of the Dublin Police of the old Imperial regime in Ireland, a sister of Willie Dunne in A Long Long Way, and so a sister of Annie Dunne in her own novel Annie Dunne. Willie fought and died in France in the First World War, Annie stayed at home, but Lilly is obliged to flee Ireland and try and make a go of it in America. She is a person rooted in Ireland but grateful in her heart to America for offering her sanctuary, her version of Canaan. Her principle possession is the characteristic of resilience. Otherwise she is servant, mother, grandmother, and friend.
Who inspired her and is she based on anyone you know?
I first wrote about Lilly many years ago, using a pet name of Dolly. She is referred to in the play The Steward of Christendom as her father’s favorite daughter, and as the youngest and the prettiest of the three daughters. Her mother died in giving birth to her. I have been thinking about her for many years and hoped to build the confidence as it were to follow her to America. She is not truly based on anyone, being very much fictional in the actual story, but I did have a great aunt that seemingly fled to America in the terrible circumstances during the Irish war of independence. In the real story, which may also be not quite true, or not untrue let us say, she fled with her fiancée and another of her brothers. The two men for some reason had been under a death sentence from the old IRA. This is a well-buried family secret and even now I know only tiny hints of it. But seemingly one of these men, probably my great uncle, was eventually gunned down on a street in Chicago. Nevertheless, the one time as a little boy that I met ‘Lilly’, she seemed to me the very happiest person I had ever encountered, very pretty even in what were likely her sixties. I remember her outside my father’s house, almost dancing where she stood in the street, full of radiant silent laughter.
Lilly’s life seems largely filled with tragedy and loss. Is she a victim of circumstances or was she in some way responsible for creating her own misfortune?
I think certainly the first, a victim of circumstances, except she does not ‘play the victim’ at any point. There is a moment in the book where she wonders is she responsible for some of what happens. I am anxious for the reader to decide for her!
On Canaan’s Side is largely set in twentieth century America from the 1920s to current day. How did you go about researching the time period and locales to create authenticity?
I read in the usual way a little pyramid of books. I have been interested for decades for instance in the building and the demise of the Ohio Canal, a fabulous feat of engineering built by Irish and Chinese workers, that already was in deep decline by the 1910s. Cleveland has also been an obsession, and I have a wonderful book called the Book of Cleveland produced in the shaken optimism of the early fifties. Also the White House Cook Book was very helpful! I have travelled widely in America and without being sentimental, the elementals and nature of North America always seem to strike in deeply. Tiny things gathered over the years. An ancient cab driver in Washington who told me his father was an Irish American who on his death was discovered to have had two families, obviously one white and one black… Wonderful things that set me thinking, thinking… The four thousand miles I hitched in 1974 as an amazed young Irishman of 17… That Van Gogh self-portrait in Chicago… The astonishing cleanliness of everything in fifties photographs… All the lost worlds of America, as multiple as the lost worlds of Ireland, and they are legion.
In your last novel, The Secret Scripture, the heroine was a 100-year-old woman with a complex life. What is your technique and inspiration for creating such convincing characters of the opposite gender and of an older age?
I wait a long long time for the voice of the character to grow inside to a sufficient degree that their existence is more vivid during the writing of the book than my own. I more or less believe that character lives inside the syntax of sentences, that every person not only has an individual soul but an individual and unique birdsong, a way of expressing themselves. So I wait for that. I have to forget I am a man and 55, in the mountains of Wicklow, and be Roseanne or Lilly for a season!
How are Joe, Ed, and Bill connected to Lilly and what were their fates?
Joe Kinderman is Lilly’s husband, although she also refers to Tadg Bere as her husband, though Tadg did not live long enough for the actual ceremony. So Joe is her first/second husband. Ed is her son by Joe, and Bill is her grandson. Both of them were soldiers in the US army, just as Lilly’s brother Willie was a soldier in the First World War. Indeed Joe Kinderman, like Tadg and Lilly’s father, was a policeman. Their fates…. I would love the reader to find out for themselves. But the fate of Bill was the deepest cause of the book. I had a great friend called Margaret Synge, then in her eighties, whose own grandson came back from the war in Afghanistan, and very very sadly took his life, although, as she said, he was paradoxically ‘full of life’. Margaret said to me, ‘why didn’t He take me instead? I am ready to go.’ It was the most profoundly moving thing I have ever heard in my life. And it is with a moment like that, in another time and another country that On Canaan’s Side begins.
What is the thinking behind telling Lilly’s story over the course of seventeen days with each chapter title counting the days without Bill?
As I was writing the book I knew there was a tension between Lilly’s wish to tell her story and that other imperative, the death of her grandson, and what she wanted to do about that. I was interested in the fact that she was sitting down every day to begin again, take up the thread. I envied her a little, being able to complete her book in 17 days! But I was always aware she wouldn’t linger long, at least in the writing of it. She was to me like a bird in the garden, and I was being very careful not to make a sudden movement, and scare her away. You cannot put the bird back in the garden, or the lily back in the bowl. I was always very grateful that she was still there. 17 times grateful. But I can still sense her in my workroom, as I write this. Writing for myself. Come back, Lilly.
What is the ultimate message or lesson that you would like the reader to take away from On Canaan’s Side?
That the world is an infinitely strange place, which we visit briefly, both to fall in love with it and endure it, and delight in it, and to suffer sometimes beyond the capacity of the human heart. That to have lived a life here is a kind of ultimate achievement in itself. That the sorrows of others are often deeply deeply hidden from us, but are still there. That maybe the seeming ‘old’ have the most urgent and necessary messages for us, that will solve the riddle and lose the knot, but that sometimes we forget to retrieve.
But I would also like the reader to know far more, and better, about it than myself, as readers always do.
Sebastian Barry's plays have been produced in London, Dublin, Sydney, and New York. His novel A Long, Long Way was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, as was The Secret Scripture, which was also a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist and winner of the Costa Book of the Year Award and the James Tait Black Prize for Fiction, as well as the Irish Novel of the Year. Barry lives in Wicklow, Ireland, with his wife and three children.