Cult Q & A: Damian Barr

❉ We chat to the award-winning writer and columnist about his literary influences and saving Newarthill Library.

Damian Barr is an award-winning writer, journalist and host of his own infamous Literary Salon.

‘Maggie & Me’, published by Bloomsbury, was BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week and the Sunday Times made it their Memoir of the Year. 

 Permanently in search of the perfect martini, he writes the BarrFly drinks page for the Sunday Times magazine and he covers politics and culture in his monthly Big Issue column.

Damian made headlines earlier this month with the success of his campaign to save Newarthill Library from closure.

Writer Damian Barr (Photo: Stella Media Ltd.)

What were you like at school?

Depends who you ask.  Most of my teachers probably thought I was a good student, maybe even a bit too keen (except Maths, PE and tech).  The school librarian was glad of my help and I was grateful for bookish sanctuary. The football team didn’t notice me. I captained all the quiz teams.  I treasured my best pals Heather and Mark and our wee gang.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

A doctor.  My mum very nearly died of a brain haemorrhage when I was very little and I remember the shock of seeing her when she finally got out of hospital. She could barely remember who me and my sister were. I remember feeling so grateful to those doctors and wanting to be one so I couls save my mum should she get ill again. Also, I have very bad handwriting just like most doctors.  Sadly this isn’t sufficient qualification. I soon replaced that ambition with becoming a journalist becomes Jennifer Hart seemed to enjoy it AND she got Mr Hart. Also, ‘Kolchak the Night Stalker’ seemed to have quite exciting days (and nights) at work.

What advice would you give to your teenage self?

Keep looking up and look back when it’s safe to.  You will be happier than you can imagine and it’s important to always share that.  Stop trying to make waistcoats cool.

What are your best and worst qualities?

I am extremely impatient which is madly wearing for the people closest to me.  My best quality?  Curiosity.

What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?

Telesales for double glazing, to raise spending money for a school holiday. When I finally did convince some poor old woman echoing at the end of a line to have a free no-obligation quote, I quit.

Who were your pop culture heroes growing up?

Mrs Hart, Kolchak…Alexis Colby, Alice Walker.

What do you consider to be the single greatest piece of television ever?

This is perilously difficult. Do we mean a moment, a series?  I am glad to have lived in the time of the ‘Alien’ films.  I would also watch ‘Beaches’ over and over with no shame.  Oh, and the ‘Omen’ films. But those are films not telly. I mean, ‘Eldorado’ was exemplary – see also ‘Prisoner: Cell Block H’.   I long to rewatch all of ‘V’.

Monty Python: Is it funny?

Not to me.

What was the last film that you watched?

‘Chi-raq’ by Spike Lee.

What film could you watch every day?

I honestly don’t think there is one.  There are films I adore but watching them every day would annul them of meaning and drain me emotionally— ‘The Color Purple’, for example.

What’s your favourite film soundtrack?

‘The Hours’, Glass. I listen to it over and over when writing anything longer than an article.

Which four actors would you like to see in a film together and which genre?

I’d like to see Dolly Parton, Parker Posey, Kevin Spacey and Alan Cumming in something heart-warming and heart-breaking.

Which film, book or album last disappointed you the most?

I was so saddened by the Henry Cavill ‘Superman’, he took a hero and turned him into a meathead.

Which album would you recommend and lend to a friend?

The soundtrack to ‘Nixon in China’.

Which record or book wouldn’t you let out of your sight?

My first edition of the Savoy Cocktail book is never ever leaving my house unless it’s with me in a lovely coffin.

Which book would you save if your house was on fire?

See above.  But also a copy of ‘The Naked Civil Servant’ signed to me by the stately homo himself.

What’s your definition of what makes something cult?

Something my tribe knows and values which others don’t value even if they know about it or undervalue, something which moves from the fringes to the centre, from the Badlands to the home system.

What are you reading at present?

Always at least three books. Right now ‘Christadora’, ‘The Dark Room’ by Seiffert and a collected New Yorker.

Can you tell us a little about how your 2013 memoir ‘Maggie & Me’ came about?

A little?  Well, just a little. My head was full of recurring images  –  not necessarily memories.  I thought that by getting them down I might get them out of my head and leave room for fiction.  So I started it as a way of getting to a novel which I suppose has happened because I am now writing a novel.  I never thought the stuff I was getting down would amount to a coherent story but it started to take on a shape.  Someone actually tried to buy ‘Maggie & Me’ as a novel because they said it had that arc. I wanted it to be a memoir—to tell the truth (or my version of it) and be seen to do so. As a child, I was so often told “No one will believe you”.  So this was my chance to finally be heard. Hearing from readers who’ve been told similar things makes my heart swell.

How did your life in writing begin and what inspired you to make a career out of it?

I started writing school reports for local newspaper—I basically made up sports news as I didn’t understand it. I went from there to writing for uni papers and got my first big break – such ‘Dynasty’ language – in Texas. I overheard a reporter interviewing someone at the next table in a café. I presented myself o him as a journalist after he’d finished and he gave me a shot I wrote a terrible piece about Halloween in Scotland and filed it late – amazingly, he didn’t fire me. Instead he took it to bits and showed me where I went wrong. His name is Michael Barnes and he still works for the Austin American Statesman and I still owe him.

Which other writers have inspired you over the years?

Edmund White, Casron McCullers, Truman Capote, Norman McCaig, Elizabeth Taylor (not the oft-married one), Dickens, and I can’t even start on the contemporary ones — we are living in golden age for the novel and for memoir.

What’s the best bit of advice anyone has given you?

Wits for ye disnae go by ye (my Grann Mac – I cite it often in ‘Maggie & Me’). What’s for you won’t go past you, translated. It sounds fatalistic but I take it to mean that good will also find you and that you must be as alert to it as to the bad.

Who has had the biggest influence on your career, and how has that person changed your work/life?

Well, Michael Barnes was a very early journalistic influence.  Diana Athill made me understand memoir as story and was a very early reader of ‘Maggie & Me’ and made short work of my indulgences — she’s truly one of the finest editors and writer this country has ever produced.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

Apart from surviving my childhood, it’s a recent thing: helping to Save Newarthill Library. It’s the very unlovely municipal place of books that gave me sanctuary when home was dangerous and awful. It showed me how to be a reader and without it I would never have become a writer. It was threatened with closure along with 4 other libraries locally.  I worked with villagers to defend the library and fight for it and in December 2016 we won. We saved the library for the next generation and I feel intensely proud of that.

Do you think it’s true that you should never meet your heroes?

No, I think meet them but just expect them to be people like everyone else, like you.

What would you like to be your epitaph?

I can’t commit to a tattoo, what makes you think I can commit to stone?

We are at a bar, what are you drinking?

A perfect Manhattan and probably a good deal faster than you!

What are your three favourite cities?

Brighton, San Francisco and New York.

You’re currently the host of the Literary Salon. What’s it like?

For the audience or for me? You’d have to ask them. For me, I love it. I started it 8 years ago at Shoreditch House and we have since travelled the world: Sao Paolo, N.Y., Austin, SF, Berlin, Moscow, Sydney… Our current home is the Savoy Hotel, London. We have three writers; a mix of established and emerging. They read new material and I talk to them. It’s that simple; our podcast is on British Airways and listened to worldwide. Authros include John waters, Polly Samson, A.M. Homes, Naomi Alderman, James Frey, Helen Fielding, Jojo Moyes, David Nicholls, David Mitchell, Kirsty Wark, Armistead Maupin, Bret Easton Ellis…a real range.

Tell us a little about your gigs as The Times’ resident ‘Barr Fly’ and ‘Big Issue’ columnist?

‘Barr Fly’ and is bad for my liver but great fun as I get to find out the stories behind all sorts of drinks and the people who make them, and share them without readers. I can’ t bear booze snobbery and aim to dispel sommelier fear.  The Big Issue is a brilliant thing — every vendor runs their own business so it does good without being do-gooder-ish. My editor, Paul McNamee, just won Editor of the Year because he is amazing. I write very personal columns for them and broaden it out to bigger issues. Ahem. Most recently the sexual abuse in football story.

Do you have any upcoming projects? How can our readers discover more about you and you work?

Talk to me on Twitter or follow the Salon on Facebook. Right now I am working on my novel.  Bloomsbury, who published M&M, bought it on scant few pages so now I am filling in the blanks. It is VERY different from my memoir and set in South Africa, and I got a grant from the Arts Vouncil to go there. It’s called ‘You Will Be Safe Here’ and I am afraid no one is, least of all reader. I have joined my passion for books and booze to do a  project pairing novels with wine!  Why doesn’t Jay Gatsby drink? What to sip with ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’? It’s all on

Thank you for taking time to talk to us!

❉  You can catch up with Damian Barr’s The Big Issue columns here.

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