Thursday, June 6, 2024

An Interview with Jonathan Barry, Author and Illustrator

Do you love classic stories? If the answer to this is "no", go away and think about your life and what on earth is wrong with you.

But if the answer is "yes" (as I feel sure it will be for every reader of this blog) you will enjoy Great Classic Stories And Why You Should Read Them by Jonathan Barry, a book that was released in March of this year. It's a series of appreciations of well-loved, timeless tales such as Dracula, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and The Wind in the Willows.

Jonathan Barry is a writer and artist who lives in Dublin. For many years now, he's worked as a painter and illustrator. Chances are, you've seen one of his innumerable book covers.

More recently, he has started writing (and illustrating!) his own books. His novel The Devil's Hoof (2017) is set in the Dublin mountains in the eighteenth century, drawing on the history of the notorious Hell Fire Club. That book was well-received, and now he's followed it up with Great Classic Stories.

I'm proud to say Jonathan is also a friend of mine, so I asked him for an interview.

ME: Thanks for this interview, Jonathan. I've read both your books and they are both excellent. I think readers of The Devil's Hoof might be surprised by Great Classic Stories. The novel has some very horrific scenes, definitely not for kids, but this book leans towards stories which can be enjoyed by both children and adults and has something of an avuncular tone. And there are many references to first reading the stories.

So I have to you remember the first "grown-up" book you read, the first book that could be read by kids or adults?

JB: The first grown up book that I read was The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. I read it when I was twelve years old, and it took me six months to read it. I was just about to leave primary school and start in secondary school, and so I started reading it during the summer before I entered secondary school. I was in an ecstasy of happiness reading it that Summer because it was such a step up from reading The Hobbit in terms of more mature prose and an epic almost Homerian long journey for my young eyes. I only read about four pages a day, and usually under my duvet at night with a torch (as I shared a room with my brother at that time and did not want to wake him.) I absolutely became engrossed in Tolkien's narrative and characters and because it took me six months to read it (almost the same time that it took Frodo, Sam, Pip and Merry to complete their journey to Mordor in the book) I felt I had actually lived the adventure with them. I grew to love all nine members of the Fellowship of the Ring, and I was genuinely horrified - even depressed - when Boromir was killed. Tolkien's prose is beautifully balanced for both children and adults in The Lord of the Rings, although it is clearly aimed at mainly an adult audience. It is a masterpiece of fantasy, and without doubt is the greatest fantasy novel ever written.

ME: What elements do you think go to making a classic story or is that a complete mystery?

JB: What a marvellous and difficult question to answer. Without a doubt there are a number of tried and tested elements that will certainly give rise to the correct conditions that may throw up a classic novel. Gathered together they do not alone guarantee that a classic will be created - but without them, a classic cannot and will not be written. They are the essential ingredients of a great book. They are as follows :

1/. Clear fluid prose.
2/. A watertight plot that leads to a believable and satisfying ending.
3/ A unique and strong first person singular narrator.
4/ Memorable characters that the reader believes in.
5/ Perfect pace ( a slow pace may lose the reader).
6/. One or two powerful scenes that stay long in the readers memory.
7/. And finally, if possible, a unique and different story that has not been told before.
All classic novels and stories have all of the above elements.

ME: Desert island time! You're on a desert island and let's say you somehow know you'll be stuck there for two years. What five books do you bring? Collected Works not allowed!

JB: That is a tough proposition, but without doubt if I was impersonating Robinson Crusoe or Alexander Selkirk, the five books I would bring with me to my desert island would be : The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, Manage Your Fears and Manage Your Anger by Dr. Abraham Low, The Toys of Peace by Saki (H. H. Munro) - to make me laugh, The House at Pooh Corner, by A. A. Milne (to put me asleep with a smile on my face), and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon (because I have never had enough time to read all of it).

ME: Do you have a favourite opening sentence and closing sentence, when it comes to books?

ANSWER: The greatest opening sentence of any novel or story that I have read in the English language, is surely the opening of "The Fall of the House of Usher" by Edgar Allan Poe, which uses alliteration, assonance, pace, and cadence to perfection. Likewise, the closing sentence from Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte is a masterpiece of prose writing diffused with sublime poetic and spiritual beauty.

[NOTE: And here they are below, for any reader-- like me-- who doesn't remember them:

"During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher."

"I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth."]

ME: What are your ideal conditions for reading and writing?

JB: My ideal conditions for reading and writing are: quiet, peace of mind,18° degrees room temperature, and excitement at a clear plot and structure to a new book that I know will work, interspersed with a cup of Barry's Gold blend tea, and several fig roll biscuits. Seasonally, I write and read my best in the winter months between October to April.

ME: You're a horror writer and love horror, as do I. Is there a single scene from horror literature that stands out as the spookiest ever to you? Or if you can't narrow it down to one, are there several? And what about film scenes?

JB: Now Mal, you and I both love the horror genre, and as you know that is a fiendishly unfair question. Have you got ten blogs I could fill out? Or ten hours in which to read through all of my suggestions? He! He! As you know I have been running a Gothic Literary Book Club in Dublin for 25 years (of which you are an honoured member) and in which we have discussed and read most of the greatest horror stories written in the English language.

The spookiest ever? Goodness me! Well, the fabulous scene where the crumpled-faced monster rises up out of the bed linen in M. R. James' marvelous story called 'Oh Whistle, And, I will come to you, My Lad' is certainly powerful and deeply disturbing, leaving an indelible visual mark on the sensitive imagination. That is creepy beyond measure.

Likewise, the stunning use of playing shadows in Sheridan Le Fanu's classic ghost story entitled 'Squire Toby' s Will', where Scroop Marston's ghost starts to terrorise Glyingdon Hall, is a glorious attack on the reader's nerves. Le Fanu was a master prose writer and story teller of the supernatural. His ability to build up a tense and lonely atmosphere was delightful.

Also, the scene where Dracula gives a screaming baby to the three voluptuous and blood thirsty vampiresses, so that they can feed on its blood, remains vile and upsetting even to the tamest of horror readers. It was shocking in 1897, and it is still disgusting to read today. Stoker pushed the boundaries of horror in Dracula, and it is extraordinary how his novel went uncensored.

Thanks, Jonathan!

You can buy Great Classic Stories here and The Devil's Hoof here.

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