Sebastian Barry: ‘I’m still not over Oliver Twist’ | Sebastian Barry

My earliest reading memory
I was eight or so before I was finally able to read. Then I was away. I usually went up to Eason’s in Dún Laoghaire on a Saturday with my pocket money and bought a Puffin book. One was a story about a boy living in London in a cul-de-sac, and there was a poignant subplot about a mother who had been a ballerina. I don’t know who wrote it or what it was called but I would love to be told.

My favorite book growing up
As a little boy I went with my father to see David Lean’s Oliver Twist at the cinema, and I thought it was something real happening in front of me. When Oliver is brought in to see Fagin at the end, and Fagin thinks Oliver can free him – well, I am still not over it. Then, much later, when I was off sick from school in Dublin, I read the actual novel, mesmerized, traumatized.

The book that changed me as a teenager
I read James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man standing under the little trees in New Square in Trinity College Dublin. I was 18. But looking back, it seems to me to mark the transition from ultimate childhood to something slightly more advanced.

The writer who changed my mind
I’m still looking to have my mind changed by a book, to my betterment. I’m ready.

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The book that made me want to be a writer
It was a mixture of two books, folded one into the other like a strange cake: Middlemarch by George Eliot and The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy. I got it into my head that a writer’s prose should be in essence his or her birdsong.

Tea author I came back to
Years ago, I couldn’t see the point of John Galsworthy. Recently I have been reading his letters, and taken an interest in how his contemporaries saw him (notably the Celestial Liar, Ford Madox Ford).

The book I reread
I have always loved Joseph Conrad’s Victory. Recently, teaching at UCD, I asked my students to read it. I had to reread it myself for class, and was shocked how I only remembered certain strands in it. And the things I had not really noticed and was not interested in, in 1979 Paris, now seemed the most important parts of the novel.

The book I could never read again
I adored the Palliser novels of Anthony Trollope, which I read while living on Paros, circa 1984. But could I read them now, in the same spirit of adoration? Maybe I should find out.

The book I discovered later in life
A book I read only some years ago, and was astonished by its modernity, its formidable intelligence and its punk sensibility, was The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen.

The author I am currently reading
AlgernonCharles Swinburne. The thing about Swinburne is, he had a huge influence on early Yeats and Ezra Pound, and if you don’t read him, you are really reading Yeats and Pound with one eye closed.

My comfort read
Whenever I need to remind myself what a beautifully made poem looks like – which is a sort of comfort – I look back at the poems of Richard Murphy, especially High Island.

Sebastian Barry’s The Lives of the Saints: The Laureate Lectures is published by Faber (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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