How Fiction Can Survive in a Distracted World

The writer Kevin Barry believes that the medium’s best hope lies in the mesmerizing power of audio storytelling.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Karl Ove Knausgaard, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

When today’s novelists try to entice readers, they’re competing against a multitude of visual distractions—email, Twitter, streaming TV, the endless allure of the iPhone. The quiet appeal of the book so rarely trumps the quick digital fix, says Kevin Barry, author of Beatlebone, that novelists shouldn’t even try to compete for people’s eyes—they should go for their ears instead.

In a conversation for this series, Barry argued that the human voice still has the power to mesmerize us the way screens seem to, and that modern fiction should be heard and not seen. For Barry, the rich aural textures of Dylan Thomas’s radio drama Under Milk Wood—a “play for voices,” which first aired in 1953—offer a way forward for literature in a glassy-eyed world.

Beatlebone, Barry’s latest, is a work of speculative historical fiction: The protagonist is a world-weary John Lennon, encountered two years before his untimely death in 1980. Artistically frustrated and besieged by fame, Lennon tries to make his way to a private island off the Irish coast, where he hopes to get some peace. For Barry, there were numerous challenges in conjuring an icon’s spoken cadence, and his revision process—he reads the work aloud like an actor, and it takes years to get the voices right—is laborious.

Kevin Barry is author of the collection Dark Lies the Island and the novel City of Bohane, which won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. He spoke to me by phone from his home in County Sligo, Ireland.

Kevin Barry: We’ve changed very much as readers of texts, in recent years. We’re much more impatient now—I think, primarily, because we’re all online, all the time. Our attention flits very quickly from text to text. You know: that thing where you’ve got 10 or 15 wonderful books at the side of your bed, and you’re there looking at your iPhone.

There’s too much out there to be dealing with: music, amazing films, good stuff of every variety. So you’ve got to get them fucking quick. That really changes the way you’ve got to approach writing as a novelist. It’s more like a short story now, in some ways. You have to get the reader on the first page of a short story, you have to convince them of a world inside page one. As writers try to capture the scattered attention of readers, I think the novel is moving towards that degree of compression.

But one thing can still arrest us, slow us down, and stop us in our tracks: the human voice. I think this explains the explosion in podcasts and radio narratives. The human voice still holds our attention, allowing us to tune in to a narrative in a way we find increasingly difficult on the page.

Readers and listeners increasingly want their stories to come at them directly in the form of a human voice. While everybody says that book sales are dropping, there’s an explosion in literary events, book festivals, spoken word events. People want to listen, and they want to hear stories. And that’s what makes a text like Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood—which is, what, 80 years old—so fresh and exciting.

I think I first came across it, as a teenager, in an art house film club in the 1980s—it was a version from the ’60s, with Richard Burton as the narrator (a rather over-ripe narrator, looking back at it now). I do think that there is a particular time in a reader’s life when Dylan Thomas has a special reverb, and it’s in that teenage moment. He’s deeply romantic. And he’s in love with language. He’s pushing language to the extent of what it can do on the page.

It’s a play for voices, a radio play, with a straightforward setup: It’s the life of a night in a small Welsh town, in the late ’30s or early ’40s. It’s very much in thrall to Joyce and to Faulkner, though Thomas brings something different of his own to it, and he’s possibly a more generous writer than those two gentlemen. He’s very engaged in the process of giving us color and giving us the world.

My favorite bit remains the scene description that comes from the first voice, from the narrator. The play begins with a single voice, an extended monologue made up of scene directions written for their own poetry:

FIRST VOICE [very softly]

To begin at the beginning:

It is Spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and- rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.

What I love is the ripeness of the language. Dylan Thomas would have been thrown out of the MFA class. There’s no way he would be allowed through with the sheer, ornate flourishes of the language, which are glorious on the page. Also, he’s writing pretty much in meter. Formal rhymes and formal repetitions spring the prose off the page.

Hush, the babies are sleeping, the farmers, the fishers, the tradesmen and pensioners, cobbler, schoolteacher, postman and publican, the undertaker and the fancy woman, drunkard, dressmaker, preacher, policeman, the webfoot cocklewomen and the tidy wives. Young girls lie bedded soft or glide in their dreams, with rings and trousseaux, bridesmaided by glow-worms down the aisles of the organplaying wood.

There’s also an oddness to the description, a weirdness that makes it hard to say just what’s going on. You think, what the fuck is “an organplaying wood”? But then you can hear a breeze going through the pipes, and you realize he’s trying to summon the sound of the woods by night in your ear, a breeze playing through the forest in Wales, in the early 1940s, and you’re transported there. He’s summoning images through sound.

Everything is so perfect, so perfectly chosen for sound and rhythm. And I love the refrain, “listen,” which repeats all the way through the work:

Listen. It is night moving in the streets …

Listen. It is night in the chill, squat chapel, hymning in bonnet and brooch and bombazine black …

Time passes. Listen. Time passes.

With this injunction to listen, Thomas is saying stop, stop, stop. He’s slowing us down so that we can enter this world.

I always think there are two kinds of readers. There are readers who read with their eyes, who process a text in images, and I think there are readers who read with their ears, who listen, as the sentences unfold across the page. I’m of the latter variety. I think the readers who are drawn to my work read with their ears. I just fucking love this stuff. I just think it’s rich, and it’s ripe, and it’s beautiful, and it’s sentimental, and it just transports us to a world.

The ambition for any piece of literary art should be that it will mesmerize, create a mesmeric effect in the reader. And as the way we write fiction has been changed, daily, by the fact of the technological apparatus that surrounds us, we need new ways to trap our readers in the page. If they can hear it—that’s the mesmeric quality. It’s hearing the work that will calm that crazed impatience in the mind, and make them grip the story and enter the world.

So I write with the intention that, ultimately, the words will be heard. It’s either going to be read by that reader with ears on the page, or by actors at some point. It will be heard out loud, and that’s the direction I think we need to push in.

Listening is a crucial part of the writing process, too, for me. My ear is my critical tool as a writer, because it’s what catches the false notes. Your eye can very easily glide across the page, look down at the text and go, “Oh yeah, that’s fine.” But if you read it out and hear it, your ear will very quickly tell you when you’re not quite there.

Writing for the ear is kind of like being an actor: I approach my characters as though I'm approaching roles to play out. Acting out the work, doing all the voices, and reciting it aloud is a very important part of the process for me. I write a lot of dialogue in my stories and novels. Duologues and monologues tend to be the engines of my projects, and I will rewrite the fuckers endlessly. I will do 100 drafts of a dialogue. I’ll constantly take the red pen to it as I act it out, trying to get closer and closer.

If you read through a dialogue twice and it seems fine, that’s something. If you read through it 10 times and it seems okay, that means something. But it’s when you go through it 100 times, and you stop making marks in it, that you know you have it right.

I believe it’s important in your work to concentrate on what you’re good at, and I can write dialogue very well. But I find it quite amusing when someone says, “Oh, you’re very natural with dialogue.” Because, of course, it’s not natural at all. If you transcribe a conversation, it looks completely unnatural on the page. An awful lot of art and effort has to go into it to make it feel real.

Dialogue has to look light and effortless. It has to have a feeling of airiness on the page. But to get that lightness takes hard, rock-breaking work. So much craft goes into it. I’ll have a page and a half or two pages of light or very light-flowing dialogue on the page, that will have cost me months of tears and sweat in my writing studio in the back of the house.

With this particular project, Beatlebone, it took a lot of drafts to get the voice I was happy with for John and his sidekick, Cornelius. I knew their voices were the engine of the novel, and getting them right took a couple years. It became apparent to me quickly that this project presented some unique problems, because people will come to this book with a preconception of what he should sound like. So I watched YouTube videos, mostly from 1970s U.S. chat shows like Dick Cavett, stopping, pausing, and repeating them endlessly. He was very capricious in his nature, and changed mood very quickly, going from light and fluffy and funny and charming to quite dark and paranoid and spiky, inside the course of a sentence. To replicate that on the page takes a lot of work.

It’s a short novel, 50,000 words, but I wrote countless pages—probably something like 400,000 words in drafts, just to get 50,000 from that. It was a long and uneconomical process.

I do think that if John Lennon had written a novel, the voice would sound something like the voice of Under Milk Wood. As I was writing Beatlebone it was always close to the desk, and I would sometimes look into and marvel at the way it springs you into its world with sheer, unembarrassed poetry.

As you read the text it seems so natural and light on the page. You think, this came out, surely, in a single rush of inspiration. But that wasn’t the case at all. For years, he was trying to write something about a night in the life of a place. It went through very many iterations and different drafts. It took 10 or 15 years before the idea found its ultimate fruition in Under Milk Wood.

All that work, in the end, yielded something with the power to transport us. And we need that, no matter what’s happening with the way we process narratives and process texts. We will always need that mesmeric quality, and we will always need stories. We need them because our lives can be shit, miserable and cruel, and they don’t turn out the way we want them to—so we turn to narratives to give us shape and to give life meaning.