I caught up with Declan Meade, founder and publisher of The Stinging Fly and one of the participants in The Independent Bookshop in a basement retail unit on Dublin’s South William Street. The Independent Bookshop is a (possibly) temporary pop-up bookshop run on a voluntary basis by personnel several of Dublin’s independent publishers, including Salvage Press, Swan River Press, Liberties Press and Meade’s The Stinging Fly. The shop, which opened for the four weeks, provided a space for independent publishers to get all their catalogue directly in front of customers in the Christmas rush, which by some estimates accounts for as much as 40% of annual book sales.
You’ll be on your way up!
You’ll be seeing great sights!
You’ll join the high fliers
who soar to high heights.
– Dr Seuss.
Those lines could easily be applied to Colin Barrett, the winner of the Guardian First Book Award for his collection of short stories, Young Skins, set in a fictional (typical) town in the west of Ireland.
The ceremony took place on the 31st floor of Centre Point, high above London’s Tottenham Court Road Tube station. Barrett admitted his ears popped in the lift on the way up and he had been a bit dizzy all evening, and that sense of giddiness will be ever more profound if he tunes in to a long feature on the latest Guardian Books Podcast.
Host Richard Lea caught up with several of those in attendance at the awards ceremony, in which Barrett followed fellow rural Irish chronicler Donal Ryan to win the Guardian prize.
Josh Cohen, psychoanalyst, literary theorist and Guardian First Book Award judge:
A very worthy winner. His prose is incredibly polished, it feels very fully formed. He knows how to draw you into a story, there’s a narrative intensity. There’s something about the gap between these very kind of dirty realist settings and the articulacy and sharpness of vision, of the narrative voice, that is a very difficult tightrope to walk. It could come across as condescending but instead it actually elevates the vision of the characters and gives them a multi-dimensionality, a complexity.
He is, sentence by sentence, an astonishing writer. One of the most natural writers I’ve come across in the last few years. It feels almost unfeasible that this is a first collection.
Stuart Broom, Waterstones, former Guardian First Book Award judge, on the commercial appeal of short story collections such as Young Skins:
The thing that the Guardian First Book Award really encourages is for readers to really open their minds. Craftsmanship can seem a bit of a pedestrian criteria [but] when you look at something that is very well made, very well structured, that comes across. This is a writer who is very adept at creating all of the old-fashioned virtues, tension, plot, character, wonderful dialogue, great figures of speech that you’ve never read before.
So once you have all of those, all of your preconceptions about a maybe less commercial format [short story collections] tend to fall away under that brilliant technical virtue.
Declan Meade, The Stinging Fly journal and The Stinging Fly Press, publisher of Young Skins:
Very quickly with Colin [after his first story was published] we said we would do a collection with him. We were building up a collection very slowly. It only got to seven stories, fair enough, but there is one long spectacular story within that, and it felt like a complete world had been made during that process.
There’s an excitement within the story-telling itself. He’s relishing the act of telling you a story, and there is a bravery to it, [as if he’s saying] ‘I’m going to tell you a story and I’m going to tell it this way, and I’m going to throw all kinds of things in there in terms of linguistic flourishes that perhaps I’m not supposed to do. But that is what I’m going to do.’
Alex Bowler, editorial director, Jonathan Cape, UK publisher of Young Skins:
I first came across Colin’s work in the pages of The Stinging Fly about three, four years ago. It was instantly combustible. The first paragraph of The Clancy Kid had me. The word choice. Within the first two sentences there is a surprise. The right word, the unique word. And then you’re hooked and the eye doesn’t wander.
You enter this world, you enter this environment, and you’re with characters who compel you. And in each story there is this moment of combustion. He’s got power and control and energy in every sentence on the micro level, but also on the wider view as well. It’s extraordinary stuff.