NS Q&A: Sebastian Barry on Desmond Tutu, his mother’s best advice and his hero, RuPaul

The Irish playwright, novelist and poet answers our questions.

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What’s your earliest memory?

Standing on the pavement outside our house in Leeson Park, Dublin – big privet hedge, looming granite steps, the legs of my mother – waiting for my father to arrive in a “new car”, a sand-coloured Volkswagen. Age two-ish, 1957 maybe. A car long returned to its constituent atoms. But my father permanently arriving in it. My heart still thumping.

 

Who is your hero?

The heroine of my childhood was my great-aunt Annie. Her back was slightly bowed from polio, so she was considered unmarriageable. But she was a magister of protection and mothering. My adult hero is RuPaul. If the Americans wanted a reality-TV star for president, why didn’t they choose him?

 

What politician do you look up to?

I suppose he’s not a politician, but Desmond Tutu is an attractive spirit. The president of Ireland is not supposed to be a politician, either, but it’s part of his renegade soul that Michael D Higgins will speak on political matters in his subtle way: LGBTI rights and all the bizarre prejudices that still bedevil us in Ireland.

 

Which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live in?

At the moment, I am living in Harlesden, which is a part of London that began to be built on vigorously in the 1890s. All the roads here remember old houses and families, old bits of farms and turns of land. I would like, just for a moment, to see it before the railway.

 

Who would paint your portrait?

The great artist Mick O’Dea did paint my portrait, for the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. It is an extremely good portrait, but it distresses me to look at it. He caught the face that’s most likely on me during one of my first nights: terrified, perplexed and inclined to flee.

 

What’s your theme tune?

I suppose the music for Paris, Texas, by Ry Cooder. A lone man walks in from the desert, taking a long time and revealed to be more obviously decrepit, step by step.

 

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? Have you followed it?

My mother’s advice was, “Lie, steal and listen at doors.” Amazingly, I haven’t followed it. She may have been joking.

 

What single thing would improve your life?

Not being such a lousy worrier. A wonderful therapist tried for a whole year to winnow the worry out of me. But here I am, worrying about these answers. It’s very worrying.

 

When were you happiest?

Definitely in my childhood, although I was surprised to realise many years later that I hadn’t had a happy childhood exactly. I think as a child I was adept at rewriting things. Later in life, your own children confer happiness on you like the Queen does knighthoods and the like. The trick is to half-deserve it.

 

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

Possibly a restorer of old properties. I love the memory traces of vanished workers that buildings carry: old conversations, curses, struggles. I spent a year with a builder on our house in Wicklow. His advice has served me well: “Keep going at it.” His other cry of advice was: “No panic!” But, like me, he didn’t really follow it.

 

Are we all doomed?

We are only 200,000 years old, so it would be quite an achievement to go extinct so soon. No other animal ever has. It would be almost admirable.

 

Sebastian Barry will be at the Cambridge Literary Festival, talking about his novel “Days Without End”, winner of the Costa Book of the Year award, on 23 April

This article appears in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue