A quarter of a century ago, sure he wanted to be a writer, Kevin Barry took himself to West Cork for a summer to write a novel. Subject? Hadn’t a clue. But he was surrounded by disused mines whose workers had left their homeland for the city of Butte, Montana over a century earlier when the Irish copper seams played out. And this fact did seed an idea. “It just struck me that that’s a Western,” he tells me. “Butte Montana, late 1890s – and it’s a Western with Cork accents.”

A research trip to Butte followed in October 1999, allowing Barry to delve into the history of a city which even today has the highest number of Irish-Americans per capita in the country.

“In the 1890s it was this little Sin City high in the Rocky Mountains, all these Irish copper miners getting their hands on good dollar wages and going suitably crazy on the benefits,” he explains. “I wrote around 100,000 words and it was terrible. You know, I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t have the chops for it. And what I especially didn’t have at that time was characters – I didn’t know who the story was really about.”

Fast forward two decades and Barry is by now an established author with Edinburgh-based publishers Canongate. He has three short story collections behind him as well as three novels. One of these, 2019’s Night Boat To Tangier, was longlisted for the Booker Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious awards. A predecessor, 2011’s City Of Bohane, was longlisted for the world’s most valuable – the International Dublin Literary Award. The first is a sort-of crime novel, the second a sort of sci-fi. Barry likes to take a genre and twist it. Sort of.

Late in 2021 it was time to start a new novel. “I thought: ‘What about that Butte, Montana number I never got together?’ By this time I had in mind a story of runaway lovers and I knew they were called Tom and Polly. I knew they were somewhere in North America, so I just thought: ‘Here we go’”.

The Herald: Irish author Kevin Barry. Picture: Olivia SmithIrish author Kevin Barry. Picture: Olivia Smith (Image: free)

In other words he had his characters, knew who and what his story was about – and, of course, by now he also had the chops to make it all sing.

And sing it does. Titled The Heart In Winter it begins in October 1891, in rainy Butte, then follows an eventful few months in the lives of 29-year-old drug- and drink-addled Irish troubadour Tom Rourke and his older paramour, Polly Gillespie. She’s fresh in town from Chicago and newly married to a man she doesn’t know and certainly doesn’t love.

The couple meet at the photographic studio where Tom earns whiskey money as an assistant and where the unquenchable fire is lit. Polly has lived a little and Tom can see it. She is “gamey,” he thinks. She has “a rascal set to her jaw” and a “fine expressive neck”. There is also that “single electrifying mole on the shoulder’s blade.” He’s smitten, and soon the reckless lovers have lit out for San Francisco on a stolen horse leaving a vengeful husband and a burned out building behind them – and with a trio of psychopathic Cornish killers hot on their heels.

“Polly comes from a lifetime of watching Terrence Malick films over and over again,” Barry explains. She certainly has some of Sissy Spacek’s character from Badlands, though the author’s favourite Malick film – and a far greater influence on the novel – is the American director’s 1978 masterpiece Days Of Heaven, which stars Richard Gere, Brooke Adams and newcomer Linda Manz.

“I just love the voice-over from Linda Manz. She’s a 14-year-old girl in the movie and he just gave her this spacey, poetic voice-over to knit the whole thing together. It has a really beautiful, odd, blank poetry to it and I think I got the note for Polly’s voice from that more than anything else.”

Tom is a sort of Nick Cave-meet-Tom Waits character, with a touch of one of those legendary bluesmen such as Leadbelly or Robert Johnson. And if you want a visual aid for the town of Butte, think of Deadwood, HBO’s gritty (and then some) drama set in South Dakota in the 1870s.

“When Deadwood came out, when I started to see it first around 2005 or so, I remember saying to myself: ‘There’s your f****** Butte, Montana. That’s how you should have done it.’”


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But from these influences Barry has still managed to create something utterly unique – a vivid and at times hallucinatory reflection on love, sex, addiction, the immigrant experience, the drive to create and even what it means to be Irish. “Soaked in an ambience of death from the cradle, they believed themselves generally to be on the way out, and sooner rather than later,” is local sheriff Stephen Devane’s take on the world view of his compatriots.

And what remains of the original novel, the one started a quarter of a century ago in West Cork? Virtually nothing. Only all a single sentence, in fact.

“I wanted to make it feel like it was the same project, somehow, so I dug out one that I remembered,” Barry says. “It felt like it was kind of paying off a debt to my younger self, you know?”

He laughs when I ask him which one.

“I knew you’d ask me that. It was: ‘She got f*** knots in her hair’.”

As with everything to do with this moving, poetic and darkly funny novel, it’s not an easy line to forget.

The Heart In Winter is out now (Canongate, £16.99). Kevin Barry is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 11