Sebastian Barry, the current Laureate for Irish Fiction, is sad to miss Melrose and the “magical allure” of the Borders this year.

The Costa-winning author of Days Without End and A Long, Long Way, booked to appear at this year’s Borders Book Festival, has visited Melrose three times, and the area clearly made an indelible mark on him.

He said: “If you’re going to be spoiled in this life… twice I went [to Melrose] and for mysterious reasons they gave me the Walter Scott Prize [for Historical Fiction] each time.

"And then another time I was thrilled to go to give the prize to Benjamin Myers.

“All three times not only did I slowly gather a friendship with [festival director] Alistair [Moffat], who was really a great guy, but we were so spoiled, I don’t know if we were fit for human life after that.

"We had to come back to normal places after that.”

He continued: “The Borders held a magical allure for me. You don’t just want to go there – you need to get back to it.

“When I’m 93 and trying to think of the signal things that have happened to me as an old critter writer going around, that’ll be high up on the list. Just the welcome of it.”

Though Barry won’t be able to meet his readers in person this year, he will be talking to an online audience on August 9 about his latest book, A Thousand Moons.

Sequel to 2016’s Days Without End, A Thousand Moons is set in 1870 Tennessee and narrated by native American Winona, who tells of her unorthodox upbringing by two men and her quest for revenge after she endures a brutal attack.

Barry spoke to the Border Telegraph from his home in County Wicklow, on a beautiful morning that he predicted with nonchalance would not last.

“Just for two hours it’s summer – it’s really beautiful, about 20 degrees, we’ve just had coffee outside, just to feel it.

“And then it will give way to rain for the rest of eternity, so… But in this moment, it’s good.”

Unable to travel to promote A Thousand Moons or visit the various book festivals that would normally be on his itinerary, Barry has spent much time in the mountains that look down on his home.

He has also been reading books such as Meditations by Marcus Aurelius – works that are “strong winds to stir away the fog of the pandemic”.

He is sanguine about the impact of lockdown on his book festival plans.

“I’m a slightly introverted person so doing the festivals does require an effort of mind for me,” he said, “but nevertheless now I don’t have them, I realise even more how unusual they are.

“Especially for godless folk like myself, it’s a kind of reaffirmation of humankind, because you do your reading and you’re there talking to your fellow writers, especially at the Borders Book Festival because they have it arranged like that.

“It’s very important for the participants to be among each other as well.”

He added: “The aftermath of it is that you have your signing queue. And if you’re very old like me – if you’re 65 – you might have some people in the signing queue and that’s a really lovely thing because each person comes up and says oftentimes quite private things to you.

“Everyone is on their best behaviour. You’re on your best behaviour! And there’s just a sort of clemency about it.

"There’s some very deep magic in it and I miss that.”

But Barry is positive about the book festival’s online efforts to bring its “magic” to readers.

“Doing it online reaffirms the importance of people gathering to talk about books, to meet the people who make books, to meet the people who read books,” he said.

“At a certain level it doesn’t sound a lot but actually it turns out to be a huge thing that we’re now going to have to miss, and it’s wonderful the effort that’s being made to perpetuate it.

“This is going to be our effort to sort of be there, like a sympathetic magic, like a group of admirable witches brewing up something that feels like the real thing.”

To see Sebastian Barry in conversation with Mairi Kidd, Creative Scotland’s Head of Literature, Languages and Publishing, you can click this link.

The festival is sponsored by investment management company Baillie Gifford.