By Seija Rankin
January 15, 2021 at 11:00 AM EST
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Credit: Conor O'Mahony; Knopf

Where does one go after writing the critically-acclaimed, reader-beloved, and Booker-longlisted Night Boat to Tangier? Why, towards more of the same, of course. It was only 2019 that author Kevin Barry published his grim (in a good way!) tale about two aging criminals, and now he's back with another book featuring a rag-tag group of Irish protagonists (and antagonists). That Old Country Music is a story collection (his third) full of love and loss — to celebrate its recent release, Barry took his talents to EW's burning book questions, telling us about a writing routine that feels straight out of a Sally Rooney novel (Sligo, anyone?).

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What is the first thing — ever — that you remember writing?

KEVIN BARRY: When I was eight years old, I wrote a short story in which the soul of Elvis Presley ascends into the body of a seagull hovering above Memphis and the seagull crosses the Atlantic and communes with a ginger-haired Irish child. I'd woken to find out that the King had died in the night and I was moved to take up my pen for the first time.

What is the last book that made you cry?

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel. Okay, we knew it wasn't going to end well for Thomas Cromwell, but as he approached the executioner's block, I still teared up a little.

Which book is at the top of your current To-Read list?

Can I name two? The Death of Francis Bacon by Max Porter and Lean Fall Stand by Jon McGregor. Two fiercely talented English novelists, totally devoted to seeing where they can take the language, the sentence, the story.

Where do you write?

I live in a police barracks from the 1840s in County Sligo in the west of Ireland, and I work in an outbuilding that was once a holding cell for Fenian prisoners. Tragically, there are no ghosts.

Which book made you a forever reader?

A Ladybird book on the history of World War II aimed at readers who were 10 years old and upwards. I remember this because I read it at the age of three. I would stand on a chair and recite reams of it for my family. A hugely entertaining child.

What is a snack you couldn't write without?

The main requirement is caffeine — I'd pour it directly into my eyeballs if I could.

If you could change one thing about any of your books what would it be?

City of Bohane, my first novel, is an epic but a very compressed one. If I'd had the gall, I'd have made it 800 pages longer.

What is your favorite part of That Old Country Music?

The whole caboodle — I'm very committed to the short story as a form, and it's a delight to have published a third collection of them at this tender young age.

What was the hardest plot point or character to write?

The poet Theodore Roethke is portrayed in the closing story and I needed to get a language that felt right for him, a prose with a kind of mid-century glamour to it.

Write a movie poster tag line for That Old Country Music:

I'll quote from one of the stories ... "Cause of Death? The West of Ireland"

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