Zibby Owens: Welcome, Gabriel. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your beautiful memoir, Walking with Ghosts.

Gabriel Byrne: Thank you so much, Zibby. It’s lovely to talk to you. Thank you.

Zibby: Your memoir was absolutely gorgeous. I loved every word. You are a phenomenal writer. When did you even realize you could write in addition to act and everything else that you do?

Gabriel: My mother was the one who encouraged me to read. She would read out loud to us at nighttime. She would also tell us the stories about — I knew Oliver Twist and Pip and all those Dickens characters long before I came to read the books. She read Jane Eyre to us over six months and then Rebecca. She was really reading them for herself. We just happened to be sitting there listening in on it. I was introduced to the world of gothic Victorian romance at a very early age. Then she read us Little Women, which was a really interesting experience for me because in Little Women — there was a time when people used to say, who’s your favorite Beatle? Then it was like, who’s your favorite of the Little Women? Of course, I fell in love with Beth and was devastated when she died of a fever at ten years of age.

Zibby: You had said your mom read books for herself, which is hilarious, and you were an unexpected beneficiary of her just reading for herself. That’s how you developed this love of literature. Tell me a little bit about how your love of reading turned into a love of writing.

Gabriel: I had always admired writers. It always seemed to me to be an inaccessible magical kind of process. The few writers that I had known, I asked them, how did they go about writing? Most of them were unable to describe how or why. It seemed to be some kind of strangle alchemy that happened between the brain and the page. I had written little bits of things here and there. I wrote a little book of love poems to my first girlfriend which would make me shiver if I looked at them now. In fact, I think I remember one small little one. There was a place where we went to. I can’t believe I remember this. Secondly, I’m can’t believe I’m telling you this. Look, I was eighteen or nineteen at the time. It’s a place called Delgany. “On Delgany’s day with my dear one I lay. Glad to be near one who loved me well and would not tell that I loved her once with all the innocence my guilt could .”

Zibby: Aw, I love that.

Gabriel: Then I stopped after that. Then I went to university. I wrote academic kind of stuff. I’d always read. My taste in literature became wider after I left Ireland. In the beginning, like a lot of people, I was looking in literature for myself. I was looking for answers to who I was, looking for answers to what the world was about. That’s why I began with Irish literature because it was a world I felt I could understand. Nobody was writing about the kind of place that I came from. I broadened out into British and American literature after that. When it came to the writing of this, I thought I would just experiment a little bit and see how it went. Finding a voice — is this a goat in the background here? A goat has just jumped up on the back of the car.

Zibby: You’re kidding. Oh, my gosh.

Gabriel: No, I’m not kidding. They’re crazy goats. They like to get in and do whatever you’re doing. Can you see?

Zibby: Oh, yes. I can see the vague outline of a goat. Now it’s gone.

Gabriel: Anyway, you experiment and just see because finding a voice is difficult when you’re writing memoir especially, trying to find a voice that’s authentic to you. I did about ten or fifteen pages. Then I sent them to a friend. I said, “Have a look at this and see what you think.” He said, “I think you should do more.” Then I did about forty pages. I sent it to an agent not expecting very much. She said, “Look, I think I can do something with this.” It was a total shock to me because I didn’t expect this to happen at all. I had written something years ago, an experimental kind of memoir. I wrote it in three weeks, so I didn’t really put much store by that. I suppose it was a combination of trying to find my writing voice and not being intimidated by all the great writers that I had read.

Zibby: The thing about your memoir is that not only do you go into the most painful areas of your life, which immediately connections the reader to you, you reveal so much and so much pain over the years in all these different ways from losing your childhood friend to your parents to your addiction, alcoholism, the abuse. It’s a gift to the reader to share all of this. Also, it’s the form in which you did it. Even the dashes instead of quotes marks and the lyrical quality of writing, just the format, it combines to make a very intimate, powerful memoir. For celebrity memoir, you have to overcome the fact that you’re a celebrity. It’s almost like people’s expectations might not be for literature, but this is true literature. This is a work of art versus, this is how I got into acting. You, of course, include that. It’s almost like you have to work against what people might think. Did you feel that when you started writing it? Did you feel like you had to sort of overcome what people might think, or was this just a natural thing? What do you think about that?

Gabriel: That’s interesting. The first thing is that I don’t think of myself as a celebrity in any shape or form. I don’t. Some people might think so. I didn’t want to write one of those things of, I did this movie, I did that movie. If there’s a movie mentioned, it’s for a reason. If there’s an actor mentioned, and there are very, very few, it’s for a specific reason. I didn’t want to write a kiss and tell, an intimate “you’ll never eat lunch in this town again.” I could’ve done one of those because I do know where the bodies are buried, so to speak. That didn’t interest me. What interested me is I think what almost everybody can do. It’s an exercise to look at oneself and to say, what were the influences that formed the person I am today? Were they familial? Of course. Societal? Of course. Cultural? Of course. Geographically? Of course. Religious. All these things go to combine a huge influence that determines the kind of person you’re going to be. I wanted to look at that and see how much I was the result of it. I think anybody can trace their development in that way.

The next biggest thing in terms of writing a memoir is that you can’t bullshit. You’re faced on every page with, is this the truth? Do I tell it? Fiction, on the other hand, if you’re writing a novel, you can farm out all these characters and ideas. They’re fictional characters. You can hide all your perspectives behind them. Memoir requires the truth because it’s a disservice to the reader if you’re bullshitting and you’re not telling the truth. The point you make there is that we are all fragile creatures. We all hunger for the same things. We all fear the same things. Some of us are better equipped psychologically or emotionally to deal with them. What unites us and I think what makes us empathize with a great novel or a poem or a painting is that we feel that it’s speaking to us about us. I thought two things. If I can write the truth about myself, then somebody else will read this and say, that rings true to me and I can perhaps learn something from this. Not that I was out to teach anything. I would just like you to hear this, and what you think about it is up to you.

The second thing I thought was that by telling my own story I was also telling the story of a particular time and particular place. Rather than do a book of essays or a novel, I found that this was the most potent way, to see it through the lens of my own emotion. There were many times when I thought, I don’t want to put this down. I don’t want to be going around have to answer questions about this. That’s the very thing that keeps us trapped. Silence and shame are bedfellows. The things that we’re most ashamed of or the things that we’re the most silent about are the things that need to be brought out into the open. By doing that, we find freedom. There’s no freedom in silence. There’s certainly no freedom in shame. The liberation of the self through having the courage to reveal oneself honestly, it’s not that there’s a resolution where there’s a big orchestra playing and everybody gives each other a big hug, and that was that problem. Life goes on. Life goes on being tough and unpredictable and joyful and beautiful, but also unexpectedly sorrowful. That is life. My biggest battle, I’ve found, is that I find it hard to stay in the reality of now, this. There’s always a thing in me that wants to do something else, to get out of the is-ness of the moment, whether it’s alcohol or drugs, I don’t shop, but all those cigarettes, food, all those things that we think, this will take me out of the moment. The moment doesn’t have to be particularly traumatic. It can be just the boringness, the grayness, the predictability of now that seems like a weight and we need to escape from it.

That’s the biggest battle I have, is remaining in the present and not wanting or wishing to be anywhere else, to be with anybody else, to have some kind of other career. To accept the way it is now, out of that’s come a contentment. I don’t believe in happiness as a permanent state. I think it’s a huge delusion. There’s a footballer who died a few days ago, an Italian footballer called Paolo Rossi, great footballer. I was watching a little interview with him. He talked about winning the World Cup in 1982, the summit of his childhood dreams, beyond telling. He said, “It made me think as I held that cup up before the world, is this happiness? Is this what it is?” He said, “Because if it is, it was gone in two seconds.” Happiness is only glimpsed. It’s like something you see roaming between trees. You see it. Then it’s gone. Then you see a little bit of it again. What’s much more worth striving for is contentment. Contentment comes out of an acceptance of the way life is. That’s why in the memoir I just said, this is the way it was. This is the way it is. People would love you to say everything’s great now. It’s wonderful you’ve got all these problems behind you. That isn’t life.

I don’t regard myself as being courageous. I’m lucky that I survived. I’m very lucky that people who loved me said, “Stop this. You got to take care of yourself,” but I didn’t listen to them for a long time. I don’t drink anymore. One of the things I wanted to take on in the book was the notion of fame and success. What is success? It’s actually very like the notion of happiness. I’ve been around enough people who have mega, mega fame. They can’t even go out the door for a coffee. There’s an avalanche of people saying the same things that they’ve been told for twenty years. It’s really difficult for those people. People think, if I got to be that famous, everything would be cool. I’d have loads of money. I’d have loads of friends and so forth. The little bit that I’ve had has allowed me to see that I don’t want any more of it and that it’s actually not something that I want to pursue in any serious way at all. I’d like to do my work, of course, but I don’t want anything more than beyond that. The things that we are led to believe — I was talking to somebody yesterday. It was a woman who was saying to me, “God, the COVID thing, I’ve put on so much weight.” She said, “Feel that.” She offered her little wadge to be felt. I gave it a bit of a squeeze and I said, “That’s nothing.” She said, “No, it is. I’m bursting out of these jeans.”

I said, “Listen, I’ve worked with some of the greatest, most beautiful actresses of the last thirty years. Every single one of them has a problem with their body. Every one of them.” I thought to myself, what is that? It’s because there’s some ideal out there like happiness that if you get to that ideal place and you get that ideal body — there’s no such thing. It’s a delusion. Men get caught up in it. Men think that’s what women should look like because that’s what she looks like on the cover of a magazine. Women don’t look like that for the most part. Why is it that those beautiful women adored by millions and millions and millions of people still look in the mirror and say, yeah, but one of my knees is a bit knobble-y? You say, I would never even notice that. This idea that we’re all culturally impelled towards of what beauty is, of what success is, of what happiness is, these are things that we really have to look at for ourselves and answer honestly what they mean to us because none of these things are the answer to contentment.

Zibby: Wow, that was amazing. You have such wisdom. That was incredibly inspiring. Although, I’m not sure if that makes me feel better about the wadge I could have you poke. I’ll just leave that be. When you said you were lucky, I feel like that’s what I kept thinking reading this book. Wow, how did he turn this whole thing around? When you were washing dishes and you were getting fired from every job, I was thinking, how is this story going to turn itself around? Just because you were sitting wearing a leather jacket one day in a restaurant and someone spotted you and put you on a soap opera and all this stuff, it would’ve been so easy for you to have remained in this state of trying to find yourself and trying to figure out your path when your childhood dream of being a priest fell apart and you were trying to pick up the pieces and then again when you were passed out in a doorway with your tooth hanging out. When I heard you had dental work, I’m like, maybe it’s because of that tooth. I don’t know. How did you keep the faith inside yourself to keep going and to keep waiting for the turnaround, whether it came internally or externally?

Gabriel: That’s a good question too. I would say it doesn’t come externally. Everything has to come from inside. There were all the signs around saying, don’t do this. Don’t do that. You don’t pay any attention to things like that. It has to come from inside. Eventually, you get sick and tired of being sick and tired. You say, is a better life possible for me? What does a better life mean? In my case, I traced it back to the fact that I was drinking just way too much. I never liked the taste of it. You could hand me a bottle of Budweiser or a three-thousand-dollar bottle of wine with dust on it. It wouldn’t make any difference to me. That wasn’t the point. The point was oblivion. The point was escape, removal from the present. The simplest thing stuck in my brain. I had read this thing once about — I had leafed through a Buddhist book looking for some kind of hope of something. One of the things that stuck with me was every journey begins with a step. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a step. My problem was that I had been trying to go to the thousand miles and saying, how do I get there? What can I do to be in that place? What I didn’t realize is that you have to take the first step and the second step. Two steps is better than no steps. Ten steps is much better than one. Bit by bit by bit, I .

I’ve used that in many ways like, for example, with children. The fact about it is that children leaving is a terribly traumatic thing, when children decide to go. The signs are there all along. I remember when my daughter was very young and she used to be in the car seat. Every morning, I would put her in the car seat. One day she said to me, “Dad, I don’t need the car seat anymore. I can buckle myself in.” I looked in the garage, and I saw the car seat. I said, this is one of these invisible markers. This is the end of a time in my life and in her life. Life is full of those invisible little markers. Going back to this Buddhist thing of a step at a time, one of the things — I’m not a Buddhist, by the way, but I’ll steal from any place I can get it. The Buddhists say a child’s first step is a step away from you. That’s a tremendously powerful notion to contemplate because they are going to leave. It’s inevitable that they will leave us behind. How do we cope with that, with the sadness of that? That little piece of Buddhism helped me deal with that too, and one last one which is the idea that your lot is harder than somebody else’s and this is happening to me and it’s not fair and why? etc. It was the story of two monks walking along. One of them had a big bag of rocks on his back. He said, “You know what, if you had to carry these — honest to god, I’m worn out carrying these things. Now we have to go up the mountain. Now we have to cross the bridge. How am I going to get across the river with this bag of rocks?” They get to the other side. The first monk says to him, “Why don’t you just leave down the bag of rocks?”

It sounds like that it’s not really a powerful thing, but it is sometimes to just say, you know what, I don’t want to do that anymore. I’m tired of carrying around this baggage. I’m not going to do it. I try to do that with stuff now. I just say, do I really need to be thinking about this or dealing with this crap? I just want to put it down. To go to Seneca, the Roman philosopher, who said life is short, but the days, if you live them properly, are long, they’re my little bits of wisdom that I hang onto and try to make part of life. When I came to write the memoir, I said, I’m going to be honest. I’m going to be truthful in this. If people run away from me and say, god almighty, I’m going to say, you know what, that was my choice. In the book, I talk about where people think that people act or that actors are always acting and they’re not truthful. That’s a stereotype. It’s a false idea because the job of the actor is to tell the truth. The job of the writer is to tell the truth. The job of the artist, full stop, is to be the dog that barks before the earthquake. He’s the one that says, this is happening. Here’s the truth. I’m holding up the mirror. Look into it. That’s what the function of an artist is. By telling the truth in performance and on the page, you’re helping somebody else to look into a mirror. By me seeing where I went wrong in my life, hopefully, there’ll be some guy sitting on a chair somewhere who will say, well, I’m not making that mistake.

Zibby: I’m sure there will be a lot of people on chairs nodding their head and being inspired. There are a lot of theories about trauma and the way it affects our development. I feel like you had so much trauma in especially growing up. I go back to losing your friend, Jimmy. That alone could’ve set somebody off on a different page, or your relationship with your sister, Marion, and what ended up happening to her and just all these things that you had to go through. The priest and when you called him back, oh, my gosh, that was insane, that moment. What do you think about the presence of trauma and how carrying that through your life affects you? Some people get tons of therapy for things like that. I didn’t get the sense that that’s the way you approached — that you didn’t approach it that way. What do you do with all this trauma that collectively builds up? How do you come to a point where you’re sitting in a car at your age looking back and having such wisdom about everything? How do you go from there to here?

Gabriel: I don’t honestly know the answer in relation to myself because I don’t know if trauma ever leaves the system. The idea that you deal with the trauma and move on — move on is a word that I — anytime somebody says to me, and move on, I don’t trust that. I think it’s always there in some form or another. The thing about abuse, it’s not just about sexual abuse. It’s domestic violence. It’s emotional abuse. It’s anytime somebody abuses their power over another person. I had to work a lot to get trust back because trust is broken with abuse. I still find trust a difficult thing. I trust the people I love, of course, but I have areas where I think to myself, why do I distrust that? There’s absolutely no reason to distrust that particular thing. I don’t know that it ever goes away. I don’t know that you ever completely resolve it. It’s like the idea of forgiveness. What is forgiveness? Forgiving yourself and those things that have passed into the common culture to — I remember meeting a Jewish couple in New York. She had survived Auschwitz with her mother. That alone is a story that — it’s hard to comprehend how somebody — the father was the man who had met her in the transit camp in Marseille in 1945 or ’46.

I said to the woman, “Do you believe in forgiveness?” She said, “I forgive the German people. I forgive the people that were the cause of the Holocaust. I forgive them because I have no choice except to forgive them. If I don’t forgive them, I’ll be eaten up with incredible anger nonstop. I have forgiven the German people.” Her husband hit the table so hard that the crockery jumped up into the air. He said, “There is no such thing as forgiveness.” Right there is the dichotomy. It’s a dilemma that I still can’t solve. Can you absolutely forgive? Can you absolutely rid yourself of trauma? I think the answer is no. I’m suspicious of absolutism. I believe in the relative examination of things. I can forgive, but I don’t. I’ve dealt with the trauma, but I really don’t know whether I have. I’ve given up alcohol. I haven’t drank for twenty-three or four years, but I could start again in five minutes. I could be dead tomorrow. Have I given that up absolutely? I like to think so, but there’s vestiges of all the experiences of our life in who we are. That’s why I wanted to look at that. What bits are left inside me from then? How do they go to make me the man that I am today? I don’t regard myself as wise or anything like that. I just felt that I had to hunt around for scraps of things that made sense to me and taking one step at a time and that I’ve gotten to this place where not that terribly much impresses me anymore, to be honest.

Zibby: Wow. I feel like I could listen to you talk all day. You have a way of putting things into perspective. In my own little life, knowing your theory, it makes it easier to forgive and to put down the bag of bricks knowing that you’ve done so before me, whatever everybody’s bag of bricks on their back happens to be at this very time. Your words are inspiring to me. I loved your book. I’m so impressed with your ability to put it out there and be open and help other people. That’s the most human thing you could do. That’s it. It’s connecting to other people. That’s the most beautiful thing someone can do for somebody else. I just wanted to thank you for that. I truly loved your book. Thank you for talking to me today.

Gabriel: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure to talk to you. I thought we were going to be talking about literature and Dostoevsky and Philip Roth and everything. I sounded a bit more like an Oprah than somebody who was going on to talk about — but I think it’s all connected. Literature, it’s all connected. We got going on that jag. It was a good one.

Zibby: Good. I’m sure you could’ve talked the whole time about Dostoevsky. Maybe we’ll pick that up. Next time I need a good dose of Dostoevsky, I’ll try to get in touch with you. This was much more interesting to me.

Gabriel: Thank you so much, Zibby.

Zibby: Thank you. Take care.

Gabriel: Bye-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.