Barr drawn to Scottish feel of city

Damian Barr outside the Robert Lord cottage in Dunedin. Photos: Linda Robertson
Damian Barr outside the Robert Lord cottage in Dunedin. Photos: Linda Robertson
Rebecca Fox asks British writer Damian Barr about his journey so far and what is in his future.

Damian Barr is just about too big for the tiny Robert Lord cottage on Titan St.

But then the Glasgow born-and-bred author and columnist settles in to an armchair in the study, crosses his legs and seems right at home.

It is his second visit to Dunedin, his third to New Zealand, but he still finds it weird that a city can be ''so Scottish'' when it's on the other side of the world.

''In one sense it's so familiar, in another, really strange. Any chance I get, I like to come back to find out more about it.''

He came to Dunedin as part of the Writers and Readers Festival in 2015 to talk about his award-winning memoir Maggie and Me and has been drawn back by the University of Otago's Scottish Writers Fellowship (set up to encourage literary and cultural exchange between Scotland and New Zealand).

Scottish writer and author Damian Barr contemplates his next move — memoir or novel?
Scottish writer and author Damian Barr contemplates his next move — memoir or novel?
''Liam McIlvanney [Scottish Studies chair at Otago] is the main reason. He's really smart, engaged, a brilliant writer, and encouraged me to apply for the fellowship.''

Barr (41) is based in Auckland at The Pah Homestead for three months but popped down to Dunedin for a few days to visit Prof McIlvanney.

The scholarship came at a good time for Barr, who is finishing his first novel, You Will Be Safe Here.

''It is in that bag, taunting me,'' he said.

Set in South Africa at the turn of the 20th century and the present day, it is an ''empire and a contemporary story linked by two events''.

Inspiration for the story came from a newspaper photograph of a boy - ''who looked like a boy I knew when I was a boy'' - who had been murdered.

''I became obsessed by what happened to this boy.''

With no connection to South Africa whatsoever, he travelled there to find the family of the boy.

Writing about a place he was not familiar with was a challenge, but having that distance provided a useful perspective that people who live there do not have.

Now he is in the editing phase.

''It's the bit you can't rush. I'm adding a lot and I'm cutting a lot; you have to be savage.''

His decision to write a novel opened up a new world for him.

''It's different. It still requires you to not be tempted by all the exciting, interesting things going on around you.''

However, there was the bonus of not knowing what was going to happen next.

''It's both thrilling and terrifying. You can kill anyone you want, sleep with anyone you want. I can burn this whole thing down if I want, but in the end, it's not about what you want, it's about what the characters want. It's about getting to know your characters.

''Writing a book is an absolute luxury and an absolute terror of limitless words.''

One of the main differences between writing a memoir and a novel, he says, is the sense of having the characters in his head all the time and wondering what their reaction will be to things.

''It's a bit hard to be present in your life. You have these people living with you. I'm hoping they'll eventually leave when I'm finished.''

With a memoir, people did not question his experience so much, unlike with a novel.

''Everyone has an opinion.''

When he was writing his memoir, which details a difficult childhood, it was more about ''opening doors to the past'' although he did not put everything ''out there''.

''You make choices. You are very much making your past present again, and if your past is painful then it is a massive struggle. There were points when I thought I didn't want to talk about child abuse today.''

Barr had varying reactions to his memoir from his family, many of whom, including his parents, have not read the book.

''It's too painful for them. I didn't write it for them, so I don't need them to read it. I wrote it for myself.''

He thinks he has another memoir in him. This time his life after he left school. He went to Edinburgh University but dropped out after a year.

''I want to explore that year. I'm fascinated by the city. I'd been a good boy my whole life, then I was a bad boy.''

He will talk a little about a new memoir at an event in Dunedin next week with Prof McIlvanney.

With his memoir he got to write about what he thought he already knew about his life, but wondered what he would find out about himself in the process.

''I'm interested, I want to know.''

Then again, he says, he might write another novel, but admits he is probably not quite ready to face that again.

''I don't think I could ever write fulltime. I don't aspire to that. I like the mixture of things - I like having an escape from it.''

He also likes to mentor young writers, believing it is important to help other people.

''Where I grew up, I thought all writers who'd written the books I liked were dead apart from Stephen King. They were dead or American and I was neither of those things.''

Another activity he likes is holding literary salons, where authors from around the world are invited to read from new material.

''I love books and love reading.''

While he always went to book events he found them very ''worthy and dry''.

''I wanted to do something with my friends where we can have a drink and a chat. We don't sell books. It's all about conversation, not transaction.''

Barr was still working at The Times fulltime when he set up his first literary salon.

''It was the kind of thing I'd do for fun. I love it. I never set out for it to become a business.''

It is now in its 10th year and first started out in a ''tiny wee room'' with 30 guests at Shoreditch House. It is now held in the Savoy's Lancaster Ballroom with 300 attendees and is also available on podcast to people around the world.

He has also taken the salons to Sydney, Moscow, New York and Istanbul, as well as his home town of Brighton.

His guest author list reads like a ''who's who'' with the likes of Natalie Haynes, Jojo Moyes, Lionel Shriver and Garth Greenwall all reading their work. Later this year, talkshow host and comedian Graham Norton will launch his new book at one.

He also writes columns for the Big Issue, which features ''top quality'' journalism and is sold by homeless people in the United Kingdom, and British Airways' High Life magazine.

He gave up his drinks column in the Sunday Times so he ''could be sober to finish his book''.

All of this has means Barr does not have to hold down a traditional day job, which is just as well as he has discovered he is not really suited to it.

''I really don't like only being able to write 800 words and having it out by 2pm.''

After returning to journalism about 10 years ago, he realised it was not for him after forgetting to go back to work one day after lunch.

''I was having a lovely time. I genuinely forgot. I wasn't drunk or anything. I'm not the best at being in an office.''

Barr lives in Brighton, which he describes as ''very gay'' and ''very liberal'' as well as having beautiful architecture, a holiday resort vibe and a very creative community - it hosts England's biggest Fringe Festival.

''Loads of writers live there.''

He is a great fan of libraries and has been blown away by the number of libraries and book shops he has seen in New Zealand, especially given the library where he spent many hours as a child has been threatened with closure.

Barr fought to keep it open and succeeded only to hear a few weeks ago the local council was again proposing its closure.

''I feel like the UK has gone backwards. There is this feeling of hope here that you just don't have at home. Being here is really different.''

To see
An Evening with Damian Barr, Tuesday,  6pm, Dunningham Suite, Dunedin City Library. Presented by Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival in association with the Centre for Irish & Scottish Studies, University of Otago.

Give away
The Otago Daily Times has a copy of Maggie and Me, by Damian Barr, to give away. To enter, email your name, address and daytime contact number to by March 30.

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