VAH: Welcome Novelist John Byrne Barry to the Three by Five Author and other Interesting People Interview series! The burning first question is always – why do you write?
JBB: I write to answer questions. No, really. Sometimes the question is as simple as “What am I going to do today?” As for why I write novels, well, those questions aren’t that different. More like “What should I do with my life?” “How can I contribute to the world?”
Those are not rhetorical questions. One of the themes that I explore, consciously some of the time, is how to do the right thing. While I wanted “Bones in the Wash” to be a fun fast-paced political thriller and family drama, under all the action, I wanted to answer that question. The protagonist, ambitious Albuquerque Mayor Tomas Zamara, does believe in doing the right thing. But as he says, “politics is like playing football on a muddy field. If you don’t get dirty, you’re not giving your all.”
Does that give you a pass on doing the right thing? No, it doesn’t. It makes it harder.
I’m writing some non-fiction now, a conservation assessment of the Russian Far East, and there too, I’m answering a question. Here we have this vast expanse of pristine ecosystems, home to polar bears, tigers, and six species of Pacific salmon, and there we have a corrupt and undemocratic Russian government. Why should anyone invest time or money to protect these unparalleled natural treasures? (The answer gets more challenging every day that President Putin is in the news for incursions into the Ukraine, even though the Russian Far East is 5,000 miles away.)
I also write to make the world more interesting. Back in 2004, when I first worked on a presidential campaign, going door-to-door and phonebanking for John Kerry in three working-class suburbs south of Milwaukee, I made a commitment to write and post a blog entry every night. The work was tedious. Too many calls. Too many doors. Not enough meaningful interactions. (It was a swing state and so many people were so inundated with ads, mailers, calls, and so on.) But I had to write something every night, so I paid more attention, keeping my eyes and ears peeled for some interesting anecdote or conversation. It added a dimension to what otherwise were long and flat days.
VAH: I’d say that one of the joys of writing is being able to fully explore all the possible answers to the many questions we encounter in our lives.
Do you remember what your first story was about?
JBB: My memory is fuzzy, but I know that sometime in fifth or sixth grade history class, I wrote—probably with others, but I don’t remember—some satirical skits about Betsy Ross and the making of the American flag. At that time, I don’t think I had listened to Stan Freberg, who did comedy records parodying American history, but when I discovered him in college, I realized I had done things in the same vein. I believe the skits were well received, but whether that’s because they were good or because the rest of history class was dull I can’t say.
VAH: What about a favorite literary character?
JBB: One of my favorite books is All the Kings Men, a fictional account of Louisiana’s charismatic governor Huey Long, represented in the book as Willie Stark. He’s a fascinating character, but it is the book’s narrator, his aide Jack Burden, a former newspaper man, who is my favorite character. Perhaps it’s because of what I mentioned above, that the compelling moral question for me, as a reader and a writer, is how to do the right thing. Willy didn’t sweat that question.
Willie knew you never needed to make up lies about opponents. Here’s what he said to Jack as he told him to find dirt on an old family friend, now a judge: “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.”
Jack found the something. For better and worse, however, Jack had a moral compass, and so he struggled with indecision, with betrayal, with morality. He was the more tortured soul, and thus more interesting.
VAH: John, imagine you were stranded on a deserted island, what book or series of books would you want with you and why?
JBB: If I think about that long enough, I won’t be able to answer it, so I’ll just blurt out John LeCarre. I’ve read at least 20 of his books, but I think I would enjoy reading them again. I reread The Spy Who Came in from the Cold a few years ago, and it seemed dated, but just as compelling a drama.
VAH: That first thought is usually the most authentic, before you catch yourself with what “should be” a response. Authors that we can return to again and again, those are the true masters worth reading.
What would you say was the biggest influence on your development as a writer?
JBB: I worked for 25 years at the Sierra Club in a variety of positions, mostly in communications, doing writing, editing, design. Because we were often covering wonky environmental issues, like fuel efficiency in cars or water pollution from factory farms, we had to find stories to make those issues come alive. So I learned and mentored others in how to discover and distill the story. When writing fiction, I can make stuff up, but when doing journalism or writing reports, I have to dig to find the gold.
But even when writing fiction, I have a tendency to “tune my piano,” to borrow a phrase from John Barth, and when I’m in rewrite, I need to cut that tuning out and jump directly to the action. Come to think of it, I might want some John Barth with me on that desert island. Though it’s been a long time since I read any of his books. When I was a younger man, I thought Giles Goat Boy was incredibly brilliant. I might find it ponderous today.
Find out more about John Byrne Barry by visiting his social media sites.