Sebastian Barry, the Laureate for Irish Fiction, often draws on his family for his historical novels.
As a child in Dublin, he shared a room with his grandfather, who had been in the British Army and had stories from his travels all over the world. His grandfather mentioned having a great-uncle who had fought in the army against the Native Americans in the 19th century.
That person became Thomas McNulty, the narrator of Barry's lyrical, brutal novel Days Without End (2016). An Irish teenager fleeing famine back home, Thomas sails to America and signs up for the army alongside a local boy, John Cole, both of them just "two wood shavings of humanity in a rough world".
Thomas and John witness – and are part of – horrific acts in the war, including the massacres of Native American women and children. They are given as a servant, but later adopt as a daughter, a Lakota girl who was orphaned in the war, whom they call Winona.
It was Winona who drew Barry back to 1870s Tennessee. In Days Without End, she is seen lovingly but in an idealised light through Thomas' eyes. Now she narrates the author's latest novel, A Thousand Moons, as a teenager who has lost her people and was raised by the men partly culpable for that loss.
"What do you do when you're stolen away, your people are killed and you're taken across the country?" says Barry, 64, over the telephone from his home in Ireland.
He quotes Winona in the book: "Even when you come out of bloodshed and disaster in the end you have got to learn to live."
Some of the inspiration for Winona comes from a young woman who was part of his family for a time.
"She wasn't really adopted – she has her family out there somewhere – but she sort of needed to be with us," says Barry. He and his wife, screenwriter Alison Deegan, have three children in their 20s.
He declines to share more about the situation, citing privacy concerns, but adds: "It was just an experience of intensely noticing what that might be, to pass from being in one set of circumstances, which are not friendly, to a place of relative sanctuary."
The unorthodox family unit formed by Thomas, John and Winona might seem improbable or anachronistic, but Barry believes rather that there was simply no language for such a family and so they could have existed unrecorded.
"To some degree, historians are slaves to evidence, especially written evidence," he says.
"You can't make up history as a historian. But we're improbable creatures from the get-go, and all conditions have always been possible among us."
Days Without End is dedicated to his son Toby, who came out as gay when he was 16.
A Thousand Moons was, in turn, written when his children had grown up and left the house and he was "contemplating the long privilege of having been a father".
Barry's parents separated when he was young and he and his siblings had a difficult childhood.
"My whole idea of being a parent was that you must find a place of safety for your children, where not only is it safe, but they also feel safe. And if we achieve that, we've achieved a lot. And I don't think Thomas and John aspire to anything more or less than that."
Although Winona is not Irish, Barry considers A Thousand Moons to be the eighth novel of a cycle inspired by his ancestors, which includes The Temporary Gentleman (2014) – based on his grandfather, who disowned him early on for mining family secrets in his writing – and The Secret Scripture (2008).
The latter's protagonist, Roseanne McNulty, is a relative of Thomas' and based on Barry's great-aunt, who was sent to an asylum and subsequently forgotten by the rest of her family.
Barry, who is also a playwright, has been twice shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
He made history as the first novelist to win the prestigious Costa Book of the Year prize twice, for The Secret Scripture and Days Without End. The Costa awards recognise works in Britain and Ireland that both have literary merit and are enjoyable.
"I felt like I was six years old," says Barry of the double win, which came as a shock both times.
"At the moment of winning, it is like a manumission. It is a moment of freedom."
He famously disapproved of the 2017 film adaptation The Secret Scripture starring Vanessa Redgrave and Rooney Mara, which he says ended up in a place where he could no longer recognise it.
Nevertheless, he is looking forward to a project that will pair the film adaptations of Days Without End and A Thousand Moons. He expects it will turn out something like the 1986 French period films Jean De Florette and Manon Des Sources, about a farmer and his daughter, which were shot back to back and released one after the other.
"It's a very ambitious thing," says Barry, "and it will take years, rather than months, to put it together. It's certainly very elusive. But if I light enough candles, I have to hope it all comes out."
Haunting voice of a war orphan girl
REVIEW / FICTION
A THOUSAND MOONS
By Sebastian Barry
Faber & Faber/Paperback/251 pages/ $31.11/From bit.ly/Thousand_Moons/4 stars
"I am Winona," says the heroine of Irish author Sebastian Barry's new novel. It is a simple declaration of personhood, but carries enormous weight. Winona, nearly 17 years old, was ripped as a child from her people, the Lakota.
Her birth-name is not in fact Winona, but Ojinjintka, which means "rose" in a language she can no longer speak. The original Winona, who was her cousin, is dead, as is the rest of her family.
Winona lives on a farm in 1870s Tennessee with her adoptive parents, former soldiers Thomas McNulty and John Cole, who featured in Barry's last novel Days Without End (2016). Her best friends are the Bouguereau siblings, who are freed slaves.
This makeshift family comes under fire from the pRead More – Source